Michaelson named Roy J. Carver Associate Professor in Psychiatry and Neuroscience

Jacob Michaelson, PhD, has been named the Roy J. Carver Associate Professor in Psychiatry and Neuroscience, a high honor given to distinguished faculty members who have made great strides in their field.

“When this happens unexpectedly early in your career, you feel even more of a desire to justify that honor through your work and through your commitment to the field,” Michaelson says. “It’s certainly motivating.”

Michaelson, who joined the UI psychiatry faculty in 2013, says he’s incredibly grateful to the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust for their investment in his research, and to Peg Nopoulos, MD, chair of psychiatry, and Ted Abel, PhD, director of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute (INI), who were his champions in receiving the appointment.

Jacob Michaelson, PhD

Michaelson established an NIH-funded research program early in his career and primarily uses computing and genomics to better understand psychiatric conditions, particularly autism. His work has branched out to investigate the role genetics play in language development, gender identity, and twice-exceptionality (a combination of very high IQ and an autism or ADHD diagnosis). 

“Everything we do somehow revolves around a better understanding of human uniqueness,” he says. “For instance, mental illness is a uniquely human thing. It requires an incredibly complex brain, and we just don't see the full constellation of these phenomena in other kinds of life. We’re using genetics to understand these things that make us human.”

In addition to recognizing Michaelson’s outstanding commitment to his work, the endowed professorship will also help financially boost his research efforts.

“Since I’ve been here at Iowa, we have been very carefully building up and laying the groundwork for a lot of really consequential projects,” Michaelson says. “I’m at a point in my career where all of our best and most exciting work is in front of us.”

In one of his most significant accomplishments yet, Michaelson established Iowa’s only site in SPARK, the largest nationwide study of autism. SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) aims to recruit 50,000 people with autism spectrum disorders, along with their family members, to study genetic and environmental factors related to the condition.  So far, Michaelson and his team have recruited over 4,500 participants into the study.

“The reality is that people who have autism, or the people who care for someone with autism, are impacted in vastly different ways,” he says. “There’s a huge diversity within the condition, and because of that diversity we want to make the best map of autism that’s ever been made.”

Using SPARK data, Michaelson and his team recently finished collecting data in the largest genetic study looking into different patterns of sleep disturbances and eating problems in autism. The project, currently in preparation for publication, includes over 5,000 families and provides a data-rich map covering a constellation of symptoms. The lab hopes this work leads to more individualized treatment plans to better tackle the complex medical conditions often seen in people with autism.  

A number of Michaelson’s current projects were born out of collaborative discussions, including his work investigating the genetics of people who are considered “twice-exceptional.” Working with the Belin-Blank Center and collaborators in the INI, Michaelson has been looking into how certain genes may play dual roles and cause some individuals to be ‘gifted,’ or have high abilities, but also cause them to suffer from a mental illness or a specific learning disorder. The group is primarily looking at genetic factors that increase IQ but also hinder another aspect of functioning. 

“The idea that changes to some genes might be both beneficial and detrimental adds a whole new level of complexity, but that makes it incredibly rewarding to work on,” Michaelson says.

On top of running a robust research program, Michaelson is the director of a multidisciplinary group of faculty and students focused on computational psychiatry. The scientists use advances in data analysis and machine learning to better understand the underlying causes of psychiatric disease. The group recently took second place in an international competition to predict IQ in over 6,000 individuals using their MRI brain scans.

“This is one of the first groups in the country focused on this area of psychiatric research,” Abel says. “Michaelson’s creative and collaborative approach to the study of mental illness fits well with the goals of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute as we seek to improve the lives of those with brain disorders.”

Under Michaelson’s direction, the group has started a successful annual symposium to brainstorm new frontiers of research and collaboration.

“Dr. Michaelson has proven to be a talented scientist, collaborator, and leader,” Nopoulos says.  “His science is cutting edge and he has been creative in looking at brain disorders through a novel lens.  His warm and caring nature makes him easy to work with  and he has established multiple collaborations with other faculty, pulling together groups that have pushed research forward in unique ways.” 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019