Genetic and behavioral aspects of schizophrenia are targets of research awards to 2004 Young Investigators

UH Manoa geneticist and psychologist receive funding

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Jim Manke, (808) 956-6099
Manoa Chancellor's Office
Audra Moran, (516) 829-5576
Posted: Jul 20, 2004

The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) is providing $120,000 to two University of Hawaii at Manoa researchers to study schizophrenia genetics and to identify adolescents at high risk for psychoses. The Alliance is the largest donor-supported organization in the world devoted exclusively to funding scientific research on psychiatric disorders. The 2004 Young Investigator awards for research in these areas are for Marilou Andres of the Pacific Biomedical Research Center (PBRC) and Jason Schiffman in the UH Manoa Department of Psychology. (Capsule summaries of the subject research follow below.)

The two-year awards are among 190 Young Investigator awards in NARSAD‘s seventeenth year of research funding. The Alliance‘s Scientific Council reviewed more than 1,000 grant applications to select the current awards. It includes among its members three Nobel Prize winners, the present and four former directors of the National Institute of Mental Health and many of the most distinguished leaders in psychiatric research in the major universities and medical centers around the world. "The research NARSAD is supporting with these grants represents all phases of the leading edge of research on the human brain and mental disorders," says the Council‘s president, Herbert Pardes, M.D., who also is President & Chief Executive Officer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as the former Vice President for Health Sciences of Columbia University and former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health. "The studies we are funding will build upon recent breakthroughs in genetics, imaging technology and molecular biology of the brain.

"Not long ago, people were looking for a single gene for each mental illness, but today as our research grants show, there is a multiplicity of genes functioning in complex relationships at the core of each of the characteristic mental illnesses," Pardes adds. "The research we are funding aims to understand this complexity and then to treat it."

Here are synopses of the UH Manoa Young Investigator Award projects:

Marilou A. Andres, Ph.D., of the Specialized Neuroscience Research Program and the Pacific Biomedical Research Center, is investigating genetic changes in SK3 potassium channels that may cause some symptoms of schizophrenia. As in other central nervous system diseases such as Huntington Disease and the spinocerebellar ataxias, some schizophrenia patients harbor multiple repeating regions in a specific gene, leading to unusually long chains of the amino acid glutamine. In schizophrenia, these polyglutamine repeats are found in the calcium-activated SK3 potassium channel. Whereas normal individuals can have as many as 12 glutamines repeats, some patients with schizophrenia may have SK3 channels with double this number or even more. Dr Andres aims to examine the effects of repeat length on SK3 channel function, and will test the hypothesis that long polyglutamine repeats can be toxic to the nerve cells that contain these altered genes.

Jason Schiffman, Ph.D., UH Manoa Department of Psychology, aims to study the ability to identify adolescents at high risk for developing psychoses. These adolescents will have symptoms and traits associated with a high risk for the future development of psychosis. Risk factors include psychotic-like symptoms, a family history of psychosis, or a recent severe worsening of functioning. Dr. Schiffman proposes following at-risk adolescents for one year to determine (and then refine) the accuracy of methods in predicting psychosis. The goal of this project is to predict individuals in Hawaii destined to develop psychosis. It is hoped that in the future psychosis can be predicted at a rate accurate enough to justify efforts towards early intervention.

NARSAD's Young Investigator Award Program provides support for the most promising young scientists conducting neurobiological research. Basic and/or clinical investigators are supported, but research must be relevant to schizophrenia, major affective disorders, or other serious mental illnesses.

Since the inception of its programs in 1987, NARSAD has awarded $157.3 million to fund 2,364 grants at 321 universities and medical research institutions in the United States and 22 other countries. All public contributions for research go 100 percent to research, since two family foundations provide contributions supporting all administrative and overhead expenses.