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Awards bolster investigators’ bipolar disorders research

Jul. 19, 2018, 10:09 AM


Two Vanderbilt University researchers have been awarded Blake A. Jenkins Discovery Awards in support of basic and/or translational research into bipolar disorder and related conditions with an emphasis on early detection, intervention and utilizing brain imaging.

Jo Ellen Wilson, MD, MPH

The $50,000 grants, awarded to Jo Ellen Wilson, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Brandee Feola, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, will be available from July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2020.

“We are very grateful to the Jenkins family for the gift to honor their son Blake,” said Stephan Heckers, MD, William P. and Henry B. Test Professor of Schizophrenia Research, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“Drs. Feola and Wilson will use cutting-edge methods to learn more about the vulnerability for psychiatric disorders, especially bipolar disorder,” said Heckers, who also holds the Donald and Charlotte Test Clinical Directorship in Psychosis Programs.

Brandee Feola, PhD

Wilson studies catatonia, a condition characterized by acute abnormalities of movement, behavior and affect. It’s a common complication of bipolar disorder (as well as other severe disorders) and is associated with considerable morbidity and mortality if not recognized and treated promptly.

Despite catatonia affecting nearly a quarter of patients with an acute episode of mania, and up to a third of patients suffering from a critical illness, little is known regarding underlying risk factors for its development. Virtually nothing is known regarding genetic risk factors for catatonia secondary to a general medical condition.

With her project, Wilson aims to perform the first known GWAS (genome wide association study) of catatonia (in a mixed medical and psychiatric population, regardless of etiology) to detect single nucleotide polymorphisms associated with catatonia at the genome wide significance level.

Additionally, she plans to conduct two matched case control studies of 1) delirium and 2) catatonia to identify whether known genetic risk profiles of conditions where catatonia is a common complication (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, major depressive disorder and autism) are associated with delirium or catatonia in patients without known underlying psychiatric illnesses.

“I am very thankful to be chosen as an awardee for the Blake A. Jenkins Discovery Fund,” Wilson said. “This is an important next step in advancing our research on the risk factors for catatonia and delirium.

“My hope is that this research will allow us to expand our understanding of the genetic variants associated with acute brain dysfunction (catatonia and delirium),” Wilson said.

Feola studies stress, a critical factor in the emergence of the first episode of psychosis (FEP).

The first episode of psychosis is often the beginning of a lifelong and debilitating psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Stress has been suggested to be a trigger for psychosis.

While it’s known that chronic stress can have deleterious effects on the brain, very little is known about whether stress markers are altered in psychosis. New knowledge about stress alterations in psychosis can be used to identify individuals at the highest risk and develop new early interventions targeting stress responses.

Feola’s proposal is to examine stress responses in patients with FEP using a multi-method approach to better understand the mechanisms underlying early psychosis.

She said the award will allow her to systematically investigate if people in the early stages of a psychotic illness have altered stress responses.

“I am honored to receive the award,” Feola said. “This award provides me with a unique opportunity to apply my expertise in stress and neuroimaging methods to my current postdoctoral training in psychosis.”

“In addition to advancing our knowledge about the role of stress in psychosis, the award will also contribute to my developing scientific career.”

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