August 19, 2005

Heckers tabbed as chair of Psychiatry

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Stephan Heckers, M.D.

Heckers tabbed as chair of Psychiatry

Stephan Heckers, M.D., associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of McLean Hospital's Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Program, has been named chair of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He will assume the position on Jan. 1, 2006.

Heckers brings to Vanderbilt clinical expertise in treating patients with psychotic disorders, particularly schizophrenia and biopolar disorder, and a strong research program in the functional neuroanatomy of psychosis, combining neuroimaging experiments of brain structure and function in psychotic patients with post-mortem studies of the cellular and molecular basis of psychosis.

Heckers' recent research has focused on the structure and function of the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory, in patients with psychotic disorders. He will continue his research at Vanderbilt, research that has been done in part with his wife, accomplished Harvard neuroscientist Christine Konradi, Ph.D., who will also join Vanderbilt's faculty. Her research focuses on how environment and experience influence the molecular properties of the brain.

Heckers fills the chair vacated after 17 years in 2001 by Michael Ebert, M.D.

“Vanderbilt offers a very collegial atmosphere,” Heckers said. “I was attracted to Vanderbilt by the opportunity for collaborative efforts. We will not make advances in psychiatry without reaching out to disciplines outside of psychiatry, such as radiology, basic neuroscience and genetics,” he said. “I've learned over the past 15 years that these collaborations are absolutely essential in gaining new methods and approaches in studying psychiatric illnesses,” he said. “Our specialty is rich with descriptive terms of what psychiatric illnesses look like and how patients feel, but we're only at the beginning of understanding the mechanisms of psychiatric illnesses.

“My hope is that with my new position I can continue my own research and create an infrastructure for psychiatrists at Vanderbilt to explore the neural basis of psychiatric disorders,” Heckers said, adding that Vanderbilt's reputation in psychiatry, as well as strong complementary programs in psychology, pharmacology, basic neuroscience and neuroimaging attracted him to the position. “The brain sciences have made great advances at Vanderbilt. What attracted me is the ability to use all the resources available at Vanderbilt to better understand psychiatric disorders.”

While his interest in post-mortem studies dates back to his first postdoctoral fellowship in 1988, he developed his expertise in Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) during fellowships at Massachusetts General Hospital from 1997-1999.

Heckers said the caliber of the Vanderbilt faculty within the psychiatry department — particularly Herbert Meltzer, M.D., Richard Shelton, M.D., and Ariel Deutch, Ph.D., and in other departments — John Gore, Ph.D., Randy Blakely, Ph.D., Pat Levitt, Ph.D., and Sohee Park, Ph.D. — made his decision to leave Harvard an easier one.

A native of Waldniel, Germany, Heckers attended the University of Cologne (Germany) Medical School and received his medical degree from the University of Bonn (Germany) in 1988. He also received a Master of Medical Sciences degree from Harvard University in 2000.

“This search has been a pretty amazing process,” said Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who led the search committee. “It took longer than we might have liked, but the end result is an outstanding chair. It was such an important opportunity to complete this significant leadership position that we have and need in neuroscience.

“Dr. Heckers has demonstrated excellence as a clinical leader in the schizophrenia and bipolar disorder program at McLean; as an educator, by receiving an outstanding teaching award from residents at McLean; and in research, by being an NIH-funded investigator,” Gabbe said.

“On top of all that we have been tremendously impressed with the insight he has shown in understanding the opportunities and challenges of building one of the top psychiatry departments in the country.”

Heckers has taught medical students and psychiatrists during and after their residency training at Harvard for more than a decade. At McLean he serves as a member of the Curriculum Leadership Group and as a coordinator of the Biomedical Seminar Series.

The Department of Psychiatry has been led on an interim basis for the past four years by George C. Bolian, M.D., professor of Psychiatry. “George has done an outstanding job leading the department,” Gabbe said. “Under his leadership, we have developed great strengths in the teaching program, we have increased the number of students going into Psychiatry, and, as a result of an ACGME site visit under his leadership and that of Dr. Cathy Fuchs, we attained full accreditation of our residency program.”

Bolian said the appointment of Hecker represents a major step forward for the Department of Psychiatry.

“Given his expertise and leadership, it assures much broader participation in the Neuroscience initiatives of the Medical Center at large,” Bolian said. “At the very least, we shall sustain our many commitments to clinical service and education, but we shall greatly expand our research endeavors in accordance with our basic mission.”

Heckers and Konradi, who will join him at Vanderbilt next June, have two children, Natascha, 9, and Lucas, 3.