NIH awards UCI $10 million to study early-life origins of adolescent mental disorders

Funding will support effort to understand developmental impact of maternal signals

Irvine, Calif., June 11, 2013 — With $10 million in new federal funding, UC Irvine researchers will study how maternal signals and care before and after birth may increase an infant’s vulnerability to adolescent cognitive and emotional problems, such as risky behaviors, addiction and depression.

Led by child neurologist and neuroscientist Dr. Tallie Z. Baram, the UC Irvine team has received a five-year Silvio O. Conte Center grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The funding program brings together researchers with diverse expertise to gain new knowledge and improve the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.

The grant will support the creation of the Conte Center on Brain Programming in Mental Disorders at UC Irvine.

“We appreciate that the National Institute of Mental Health strategic plan recognizes that most neuropsychiatric disorders have origins early in life,” said Baram, the Danette “Dee Dee” Shepard Chair in Neurological Studies. “This complex problem requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves both animal and human research. Investigators at UC Irvine have distinguished themselves in this area, and we believe that with the Conte Center funding, we can make major contributions to our understanding of this issue.”

A large body of work has suggested that signals conveyed by a mother during fetal growth and the first few years after birth influence a baby’s development and cognitive and emotional functioning. The UC Irvine team suspects that the patterns or rhythms of maternal signals, rather than their general quantity or quality, are key.

In neurobiology, it’s well known that patterns of signals influence the function of single neurons. Recent research at UC Irvine suggests that patterns also matter on a “macro” scale of the entire brain. Specifically, animal studies have shown that consistent and predictable maternal signals enhance cognitive and emotional development. In contrast, fragmented and unpredictable maternal care might have the opposite effect. Additionally, a study that tracked a cohort of mothers during pregnancy and then with their babies for a few years seemed to confirm this idea.

To connect these discoveries and their impact on adolescent cognitive behaviors, UC Irvine’s Conte Center on Brain Programming in Mental Disorders will combine neurobiological and molecular research with animals, behavioral research with children, and neuroimaging and computational statistical analyses. Its goal is to create a comprehensive picture of maternal influences, childhood cognitive and emotional development, and brain structure to help identify children who may be vulnerable to adolescent mental health disorders and to help establish more effective treatments.

Center collaborators include the following:

  • Baram will investigate in rodent models how brain cells recognize patterns of maternal signals and how this influences the cellular machinery to change the expression of important genes throughout life.
  • Curt Sandman, professor emeritus of psychiatry & human behavior, and Elysia Poggi Davis, associate professor of psychiatry & human behavior, will examine the effect of frequent changes in maternal mood, including anxiety and depression, on the fetus during pregnancy. They will also track mothers and their infants after birth to determine whether inconsistency between fetal and neonatal maternal signals contributes significantly to later emotional and cognitive development. Davis will gauge stability in the patterns and sequences of maternal care in infancy and childhood and the impact of these patterns on brain structure and cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities during adolescence.
  • Dr. Steven Small, professor and the Dr. Stanley van den Noort Endowed Chair of Neurology, and Ana Solodkin, associate professor of anatomy & neurobiology, will use sophisticated imaging methods to reveal changes in brain structure, connectivity and function caused by patterns of maternal signals. This imaging will be conducted in parallel in children and rodent models, bridging the associational studies possible in humans and direct causal studies in rats and mice.
  • Hal Stern, the Ted and Janice Smith Family Foundation Dean of the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences, will direct approaches for creating mathematical cross-species models of fragmented and unpredictable maternal signals. He will explore the relationship between early development and subsequent vulnerabilities. His group also will provide statistical support for each of the projects, with an emphasis on integrating results of different data types (imaging, genetic and behavioral) at different ages to enhance the understanding of how adolescent mental health disorders develop.

About the Conte Center grants: Since 1988, the National Institute of Mental Health has encouraged scientists to seek funding for projects in which a unifying, well-defined question could be approached from many angles and at many levels (for example, genetic, molecular, clinical and behavioral) via its Centers for the Neuroscience of Mental Disorders and Centers for Neuroscience Research. In 1993, these centers were renamed in memory of U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte, a champion of neuroscience research and the severely mentally ill. In keeping with the guidelines for Conte Centers, the UC Irvine research effort will focus on translating basic findings into mental health treatments.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UCI is among the most dynamic campuses in the University of California system, with more than 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 1,100 faculty and 9,400 staff. Orange County’s second-largest employer, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $4.3 billion. For more UCI news, visit news.uci.edu.

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