May 25, 2001

Campus joins $38M mental health effort

By Andrew Fell

Causes of and treatments for schizophrenia and depression will be the targets of a research and development consortium including UC Davis, UC Irvine, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University.

The first five years of the consortium will be funded by a donation of $38.5 dollars from the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Fund, endowed by the Pritzker Family Philanthropic Fund.

"The potential benefits of this approach are enormous. The Pritzker Foundation has shown great foresight in taking the initiative to finance this consortium," said Center for Neuroscience director Ted Jones, a member of the consortium.

One in 100 people suffer from schizophrenia, and at least one in 10 from depression, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. These diseases impose a terrible burden on patients, their families and society as a whole. In the U.S. alone, treatment and management of schizophrenia is estimated to cost up to $60 billion a year, and the costs of depression have been estimated at $44 billion a year.

"Scientists and physicians now recognize that these diseases have their basis in disordered brain function," said Jones.

Scientists do not think that these diseases are caused by defects in single genes, but likely by many genes and their protein products acting together. Environmental factors may also affect how genes and their products behave in different parts of the brain at certain times.

The researchers will study brain tissues from normal, schizophrenic and depressive people. These tissues are stored in a "brain bank" built up by a partnership between UC Davis and UC Irvine, and housed in the Center for Neuroscience.

Microarray technology will be used to compare the expression of genes in different regions of normal and diseased brains. Microarrays, or "gene chips," allow scientists to measure the activity of thousands of genes at the same time. A set of genetic probes developed by researchers at Stanford University will be used to build the microarrays.

Candidate genes will be further studied in living patients and in families with a history of mental illness. These genes will also be studied in laboratory experiments with genetically modified animals and cell cultures.

"The work is enormous in scope, on account of the capacity of microarray technology to generate vast amounts of data and because of the large number of brain regions and nerve cell types to be analyzed," Jones said. The consortium will develop an informatics system to handle this data, he said.

Each of the members of the consortium contributes unique skills that further the aims of the group, said Jones. William Bunney at UC Irvine has taken the lead in collecting brains, while Jones has developed storage methods and has expertise in identifying nerve cells and circuits.

Huda Akil and Stanley Watson at the University of Michigan study the relationship between genes, behavior and the brain. At Stanford University, David Cox pioneered microarray technology, and Alan Schatzberg studies the effect of genes on behavior in monkeys. Geneticists William Byerley at UC Irvine and Margit Burmeister at the University of Michigan study human families with a high rate of mental illness.

"The approach taken is representative of how modern science embarks on a project of such great complexity that the efforts of single scientists studying a few genes at a time would be unlikely to make major inroads," said Jones.

An important goal for the consortium is to use the research to develop new treatments for schizophrenia and depression, through partnerships with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, Jones said.

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