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Eleven young investigators receive grants to pursue brain and behavior research

January 28, 2015

Eleven Yale investigators have received Young Investigator Grants from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (formerly NARSAD). The grants are among $12 million in new funding intended to lead to breakthroughs in understanding and treating mental illness.

Receiving up to $65,000 over two years, these early-career scientists will pursue research related to depression, schizophrenia, autism, and borderline personality, post-traumatic stress, attention-deficit hyperactivity, and eating disorders.

2014 Yale Recipients

Chadi Abdallah, MD
Project area: New Technologies/Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Abdallah will use advanced brain imaging called carbon-13 magnetic resonance spectroscopy to examine the effects of PTSD on the functioning of glia and on glutamate neurotransmission. Glia are brain cells that provide support and protection for neurons; glutamate is the brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter. Glia functioning and glutamate neurotransmission are impaired in animal models of stress and have been linked to psychiatric illness.

Mounira Banasr, PhD
Program area: Basic Research/Depression
This project proposes to identify the molecular and cellular mechanism involved in the effect of stress on astrocytes—brain cells of the type called glia—which provide support and insulation for neurons. Stress-induced glial anomalies, including astrocyte dysfunction, have been implicated in major depressive disorder and other stress-related neuropsychiatric illnesses.

John Daniel Cahill, MBBS
Program area: Next Generation Therapies/Schizophrenia
Cahill is exploring pregnenolone, a natural hormone precursor, as a defense against the effects of cannabis, which is believed to interact with brain abnormalities to exacerbate or precipitate psychosis. Marijuana use is high among people with and/or at risk for developing schizophrenia. The study will first explore the interaction between pregnenolone and THC, the principal active component of cannabis, in healthy volunteers to test the potential link between pregnenolone and THC-induced psychosis-like effects.

Becky Catherine Carlyle, PhD
Project area: Next Generation Therapies/Depression
Furthering research to characterize the brain’s response to ketamine, a fast and effective antidepressant that works for people with intractable depression but has some undesirable side effects. She will explore the inhibiting effect of ketamine on an enzyme, EF2K, toward potential use of EF2K inhibitors in a newly designed treatment for depression with fewer negative side effects than ketamine.

Marcelo Dietrich, MD, PhD
Program area: Basic Research/Eating Disorders
Deitrich is working to identify the biological processes that trigger anorexia nervosa, which has the highest mortality rate among psychiatric illnesses, to help develop effective treatments. With a mouse model created in his lab, Dr. Dietrich will examine the interplay between hunger-inducing neurons of the hypothalamus and the food-stimulated reward circuitry in the brain that his studies point to as being altered in people susceptible to anorexia.

Sarah Kathryn Fineberg, MD, PhD
Program area: New Technologies/Borderline Personality Disorder
This project will use tools from cognitive neuroscience to explore a phenomenon experienced by people with borderline personality disorder: they have difficulties feeling that they know their own bodies. A computer game will measure social and nonsocial learning in women with borderline personality disorder, and also will test whether they use bodily mimicry to understand emotions as often as do women without the disorder.

Jennifer H. Foss-Feig, PhD
Program area: New Technologies/Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) & Schizophrenia
Foss-Feig will investigate imbalance in neural excitatory and inhibitory signaling in the cortex in adults with autism spectrum disorder and people with early-course schizophrenia. Using computationally and biologically grounded experimental paradigms and cutting-edge functional neuroimaging techniques, the study will seek to relate behavioral and neural markers of this imbalance to both shared and distinct clinical symptoms across the two illnesses.

Chun Hay Alex Kwan, PhD
Program area: Next Generation Therapies/Depression
Kwan will use time-lapse two-photon microscopy to image antidepressant medication effect on dendritic spines, the neuronal protrusions that receive signals from other neurons across the synapse. Because the antidepressant ketamine stimulates synaptic activity and spine proliferation, Dr. Kwan will test whether spine density indicates general antidepressant efficacy by imaging the same sets of spines in mouse models of depression before and after treatments with different antidepressants.

Benjamin Bruce Land, PhD
Project area: Next Generation Therapies/Depression
Land will use traditional pharmacological approaches and novel light-based strategies that allow cells to be turned on and off to learn whether the opioid system influences measures of pain and depression. The brain areas underlying depression may also play a role in the perception of pain. This effect, mediated by opioids, has not been extensively tested in depression and may offer a new target for treatment.

Stephanie Dunkel Smith, PhD
Program area: Next Generation Therapies/Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
A trial to determine the effects of an integrated brain, body and social (IBBS) intervention for children with ADHD on neural markers of attention and inhibitory control and on changes in symptom severity following treatment. The IBBS intervention is designed to foster interconnections between attentional subsystems and ADHD-compromised brain areas through computerized cognitive remediation, physical exercise, and a classroom-based behavior management strategy.

Simone Tomasi, MD, PhD
Program area: Basic Research/Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
This project will explore embryonic development of the prefrontal cortex in the mouse brain to look for alterations in the process that may be linked to ASD. A major goal of the study is to reveal the role of fibroblast growth factors in typical development and in ASD. Fibroblast growth factors and their receptors are essential for proliferation and maturation of embryonic progenitor cells.

Submitted by Shane Seger on January 28, 2015