After symposium, mental health research continues

Two weeks after the National Association for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) held a symposium at Yale, University researchers and scientists are continuing to explore many of the projects and ideas presented at the mental-health conference.

NARSAD’s “Healthy Minds Across America” initiative — an event held Sept. 14 in which researchers held public forums simultaneously at 48 different institutions across the nation and in Canada to educate researchers, students and teachers alike on new research in the fields of learning, memory, cognition and mood disorders — was merely the tip of the iceberg of a vast expanse of on-going mental-health research.

The symposium provided a chance for five Yale researchers to bring their hard work to a wider audience, and while the talks are now completed, these scientists say their work is just beginning.

Michael Crowley, associate director of the developmental electrophysiology laboratory at the Yale Child Study Center, said his area of study will only continue to grow in importance following the symposium. Crowley’s current research focuses on negative-affect regulation in Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), a psychiatric condition characterized by an ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behavior, beyond the bounds of normal childhood recalcitrance.

Crowley said the uncooperative, defiant behavior — both towards authority figures, such as parents and teachers, and toward peers — can interfere with the patients’ day-to-day functioning in social environments.

Using a biological response known as the “startle” response, Crowley and his team are able to study affect regulation, or people’s ability to regulate their emotional responses.

When disturbed or “startled,” people have an innate reflex to blink their eyes. The startle response is a brainstem-mediated defensive reflex, but the eye-blink portion of the reflex can be intentionally elicited by presenting white noise — like static on a TV — because of the connections between the amygdala and the startle circuit, Crowley said.

By indirectly studying the effects of the amygdala on this startle circuit during stressful situations, his team is able to study individual differences in emotional processing.

“Traditionally, this response is used to study anxiety,” he said. “However, we’re finding that if we introduce a time dimension — that is, study the startle response over time under stress — we can study disregulated emotional reactivity in ODD.”

Testing populations of young boys both with and without ODD, Crowley showed with his research that boys without ODD were strongly startled at early points during a stressor but that their disturbance diminished over time. By contrast, boys with ODD startled less initially, but their startle response increased over a prolonged stressor.

Crowley has replicated the finding in typically developing children, showing that children high on temperamental frustration show a similar pattern to the boys with ODD.

“Basically, we’re indirectly studying changes in fear-related neural circuitry over time,” Crowley said. “We’re hoping we can begin to understand how emotion is disregulated in ODD, and to inform treatments designed to ameliorate the condition.”

Hilary Blumberg, associate professor of psychiatry, also represents Yale’s ongoing research in the department of cognitive impairment — more specifically, mood disorders.

Using three different kinds of brain scanning — structural MRI, functional MRI and DTI (diffusion tension imaging) — her work aims to determine differences in brain circuits that regulate emotions, mainly the ventral prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, and how these differences may develop in bipolar disorder.

“We can look at brain’s functioning and structural integrity of connections,” Blumberg said, describing the advantages of using these three particular scans. “We can also look at brain development in children and teenagers.”

Her most recent work looks at how specific genetic variation influences the development of the brain circuitry differently in people suffering from bipolar disorder.

Blumberg’s work represents the heightened interest in genetic research that is spreading through research labs at Yale and across the research community as a whole.

Studying a different, but also rapidly growing, area of mental-health research, Paul Lombroso, director of the Yale molecular neurobiology laboratory, is continuing research on different diseases and conditions related to learning and memory, including Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

“The important implications of the work are developing medication that … may have important therapeutic benefits in several psychiatric disorders,” Lombroso said.

Those Yale experts who had the opportunity to present and participate in the symposium agreed NARSAD was a success in that it united the research communities on campus with the greater field of genetic research across the nation.

But they said the symposium by no means represents a culmination or conclusion of research in the field of mental health. In fact, Blumberg said the most critical time for research is still to come.

“We’re at a critically important stage in research where we’re at the cusp of making major strides, with the potential to relieve the suffering of millions with psychiatric disorders,” she said. “And we can now work together to someday prevent these illnesses.”

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