Dr. William E. Bunney, Distinguished Professor of psychiatry & human behavior at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, has been awarded the prestigious Institute of Medicine’s 2011 Rhoda & Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health for his work enhancing the treatment and understanding of mood disorders.

Acknowledging Bunney’s research into key biological abnormalities in depression and schizophrenia, the prize — consisting of a medal and $20,000 — was presented at the IOM’s annual meeting this week in Washington, D.C.

“Dr. Bunney is a pioneer in the biological approach to understanding mood disorders,” said UCI Chancellor Michael Drake. “We’re thrilled that he has been recognized for his contributions to the study and treatment of illnesses that are not only debilitating but potentially fatal. He’s a delightful person and an outstanding campus citizen.”

Early research by Bunney helped establish lithium’s effectiveness in treating bipolar disorder, and his efforts led to official approval of the drug for the disorder. He also wrote a seminal paper on the neurotransmitter norepinephrine’s pivotal role in depression. This was one of two studies papers that triggered hundreds of investigations into the biological mechanisms of major depressive disorders and potential therapies.

Bunney’s efforts have also directly improved the quality of care available to people with substance abuse and mental disorders. As director of the Division of Narcotic Addiction & Drug Abuse at the National Institute for Mental Health from 1971 to 1973, he expanded the number of drug abuse treatment centers nationwide from 23 to 140.

The IOM bestows the Sarnat Prize for outstanding achievement in improving mental health. As defined by the nominating criteria, the field of mental health encompasses neuroscience, psychology, social work, nursing, psychiatry and advocacy, among other disciplines.

Ellen Frank, Distinguished Professor of psychiatry and professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, also won the award, which is supported by Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat of Los Angeles. Rhoda Sarnat is a licensed clinical social worker, and Bernard Sarnat is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and researcher. Their concern about the destructive effects of mental illness inspired them to establish the prize.

Nominations for potential recipients are solicited every year from IOM members, mental health professionals and others. This year’s selection committee was chaired by David J. Kupfer, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh’s Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic.

Established in 1970 under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the IOM provides independent, objective, evidence-based advice to policymakers, health professionals, the private sector and the public. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council make up the National Academies.

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