December 18, 2014

Family’s gift bolsters schizophrenia research, treatment

A “transformational” $6.4 million gift from Dallas couple Donald Test Jr., and his wife, Charlotte, who have a very personal connection to the devastating disease of schizophrenia, is supporting Vanderbilt Department of Psychiatry research and treatment into schizophrenia and related disorders.

A “transformational” $6.4 million gift from Dallas couple Donald Test Jr., and his wife, Charlotte, who have a very personal connection to the devastating disease of schizophrenia, is supporting Vanderbilt Department of Psychiatry research and treatment into schizophrenia and related disorders.

“Through this commitment and their prior gifts to Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. Test are empowering us to battle this devastating disease in a very direct way,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Their generosity is greatly appreciated and is allowing us to increase the pace of research and training for future generations of physician scientists who are passionate about finding new treatments for those they serve.”

The Psychiatry clinical team includes (seated, from left) Emma Finan, R.N., LMFT, Stephan Heckers, M.D., (standing, from left) Kristan Armstrong, LCSW, Nara Granja Ingram, M.D., Ph.D., and Jeff Stovall, M.D. (photo by Anne Rayner)

The Tests became connected to Vanderbilt through Dallas psychiatrist Jack Martin, M.D., a 1953 graduate of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Martin cared for the Tests’ sons, William and Henry, who were diagnosed with schizophrenia as teenagers.

“This transformational, one-of-a-kind gift is allowing us to enhance our clinical and research program and ultimately accelerate our efforts to better understand and treat psychotic disorders,” said Stephan Heckers, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry.

Over the years, the couple became enthusiastic about the University’s work in schizophrenia. Their latest gift is part of their longer history of generosity to Vanderbilt. They previously established the William P. and Henry B. Test Chair in Schizophrenia Research in 2008, held by Heckers, and the Jack Martin Endowment Fund in Schizophrenia Research.

The Psychiatry research team includes (seated, from left) Karoly Mirnics, M.D., Ph.D., Jennifer Blackford, Ph.D., (standing, from left) Christine Konradi, Ph.D., Stephan Heckers, M.D., and Neil Woodward, Ph.D. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Heckers said in many ways all of the Tests’ gifts are grateful patient gifts. “The sons couldn’t make them, but Charlotte and Donald developed a passion to help others with this illness,” Heckers said.

The Tests’ most recent gift, the Charlotte and Donald Test Fund in Psychiatry, is being used to fund a Fellowship in Psychotic Disorders and support faculty research with a focus on schizophrenia. The department’s first fellow is Nara Granja-Ingram, M.D., Ph.D. This gift honors Henry and the late William Test.

“This gift will help Vanderbilt, in perpetuity, train psychiatrists to become experts, and fund research projects devoted to schizophrenia and psychotic disorders on a regular basis,” Heckers said. Vanderbilt already has a good number of faculty interested in this effort, but until now we haven’t had a sustained effort to do this,” he said.

Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe and disabling brain disorder that affects about 1 percent of the population. Characterized by hallucinations, delusions and disorganization, the disease is often disabling, leading to difficulties holding a job or caring for oneself. However, when patients with schizophrenia respond to treatment, they can lead rewarding and meaningful lives.

Another 2 percent of the population has psychotic illnesses similar to schizophrenia, Heckers said. “There are many reasons why people become psychotic.”

Schizophrenia affects men and women equally and occurs at similar rates in all ethnic groups around the world. Symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions usually start between ages 16 and 30. Men tend to experience symptoms a little earlier than women.

Heckers said it can be difficult to diagnose schizophrenia in teenagers because the first signs can include a change of friends, a drop in grades, sleep problems, and irritability—behaviors that are common in that age group.

A combination of factors increases the risk of developing the illness. These include isolating oneself and withdrawing from others, an increase in unusual thoughts and suspicions, and a family history of psychosis. In young people who develop the disease, this stage of the disorder is called the “prodromal” period.

In particular, Vanderbilt’s expanded emphasis in psychotic disorders will focus on improving detection and early intervention.

“If we get to patients during this early stage and introduce medication, psychotherapy and family education, it dramatically improves their chances of leading productive lives,” Heckers said.

Heckers also noted that the disease takes an immense toll on families.

“The illness changes who the person is,” Heckers said. “When you’ve raised children you know their temperament, their personality and what they’d like to do in life. When the person you’ve known for that long develops schizophrenia, they literally change in front of you and lose the ability to feel connected to the family or those around them. That is the most difficult aspect of the illness.”

Charlotte Test said that William and Henry’s diagnosis was “disastrous” for the Test family, particularly because at the time the boys were diagnosed there wasn’t as much societal awareness of the disease. “It’s a devastating disease and in some cases can destroy a family,” she said.

“We’re doing this because we want to help other families who are going through this,” she said. “We want to save others the agony and hurt this disease causes. We’re hopeful this will lead to advanced awareness and acceptance – that as people know more about it, they will understand it and accept it more. We also hope it will lead to new avenues, new thoughts and new ways to treat patients that will prevent the disease from progressing, and ultimately give people their lives, hopes and dreams back.”