Iowa Neuroscience Institute to fund psychiatry research center, junior investigator

By Aleksandra Vujicic

Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

Though just a few months out from its inception, the Iowa Neuroscience Institute is already pouring over $1 million into supporting and enhancing psychiatric research.

The Institute, supported by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, will award Professor and Molecular Psychiatry Division Director John Wemmie MD, PhD, and a team of researchers, $150,000 annually for five years to create a Bipolar Disorder Research Program of Excellence.

Hanna Stevens, MD, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, will also receive $150,000 annually, for two years, after she was selected to receive one of two junior investigator awards.

Bipolar Disorder Research Program of Excellence

The Iowa Neuroscience Institute created the Programs of Excellence Award to identify outstanding project proposals that may be competitive for major National Institutes of Health collaborative grants, with the idea of building teams of stellar investigators that could accomplish more than an individual researcher might be able to do.

Ted Abel, PhD, the director of the Institute, says he also looked for projects that can be studied from the “bench to the bedside,” that is, from the level of working on causes and mechanisms of disease in the lab to the level of testing treatments in patients. 

Ted Abel, PhD

Director, Iowa Neuroscience Institute

This program of excellence brings together a diverse team of researchers to approach bipolar disorder (BD) from four different research perspectives, combining new brain imaging, with genetics, cutting-edge circuit-level analyses, and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

“There are currently no lab tests that help diagnose the illness and there are no treatments to target the underlying neurobiological mechanisms of the disease,” Wemmie said. “Our ultimate goal is to develop better diagnostic and treatment strategies for BD, a common and disabling mental illness.”

The research will focus on the cerebellum and its connections to brain circuits that regulate mood state, where abnormal function may cause episodes of mania and depression that are commonly seen in BD.

Abel said he was impressed that the team includes professors in the College of Medicine, Engineering, and Liberal Arts and Sciences to help bolster a culture of collaboration. 

The group will also foster opportunities for mentorship.

“They brought together some young investigators as well as some well-established investigators,” Abel said. “We’re trying to build bridges. John [Wemmie] did that in his program.”

Here’s a quick glance at the team:

Jess Fiedorowicz, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, is the Medical Director of the UI Mood Disorders Center and has built a large registry of patients with BD. 

Gary Christensen, DSc, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is an expert in brain mapping analyses.

Vince Magnotta, PhD, Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Biomedical Engineering, is collaborating with Wemmie, to develop new imaging strategies based on observations that brain pH and metabolism fluctuate dynamically in normal brain function and disease.

James Potash, MD, MPH, Chair of Psychiatry, and Shizhong Han, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, will bring expertise in human genetics and epigenetics to the group.

John Freeman, PhD, Professor of Psychology, and Krystal Parker, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, study the role of the cerebellum in cognition and emotion.

Aaron Boes, MD, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Neurology, and Psychiatry, and Brian Dlouhy, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery, use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to manipulate the cerebellum and study its role in brain function. Dr. Boes also runs the clinical TMS program at UIHC to treat depression.

Stevens receives junior investigator award to boost brain development research

Stevens, who came to Iowa from Yale two years ago, studies early brain development both in the womb and right after birth. 

Hanna Stevens, MD, PhD

Abel said he was impressed with how her research directly connects with what she does in the clinic as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. The work she does examining rodent models, particularly maternal stress and how that influences the behavior of the offspring directly, connects to the young patients she sees in the clinic.

“One of the things we want to do here in the Institute is develop ways to take our basic science findings and have them impact the way we treat patients and the way we understand psychiatric disease,” Abel said.

One focus of the research is to examine how the prenatal environment and its influences on the developing brain might differ between males and females. This is important for disorders such as autism and ADHD, which are more commonly found in males, and anxiety and depression, which are seen more frequently in females, Stevens said.

Her team has already found interesting data that suggests development does differ between sexes in the embryonic brain very early, while new cells are being produced. There are also some sex-based differences between gene expression in the brain very early in development.

Stevens will use the new funding to hire a post-doctoral researcher to join her lab this summer. She was grateful to receive this vote of confidence in her work that will better prepare her for highly competitive federal funding.

“Iowa already had an amazing interdisciplinary neuroscience community and the Institute just brings it up to a different level with an influx of resources, not just financially, but intellectually with Ted Abel in the lead,” she said. “He’s a broad thinker about what we can do with our neuroscience expertise and in developing new areas of research.”


Monday, June 5, 2017