Discovering how infections during pregnancy, such as COVID-19 and influenza, can lead to psychiatric illness and developmental disorders in offspring for years, and how to detect, prevent or treat these disorders, is the subject of a $ 15.7 million grant from the National Institute. mental health at the Conte Center at the University of California, Davis.
The UC Davis Conte Center, organized through the Center for Neuroscience, was originally established by an NIH 2016 grant. This grant renews funding for the center for the next five years.
UC Davis is at the top level of translational mental health research. The founding of the UC Davis Conte Center in 2016 was an incredible achievement, and an even greater achievement is to renew it in 2021. “
Cameron Carter, C. Bryan Cameron President of the Center for Neuroscience and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the School of Medicine, Co-Principal Investigator
Building on the promising findings from the initial grant, the renewed funding will allow researchers to discover biomarkers for high-risk pregnancies and new treatments to prevent the harmful effects of maternal infection on brain development in offspring.
“A team from the UC Davis Conte Center is helping us understand the origins of significant mental health disorders,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “And their research will have far-reaching effects and provide a fundamental understanding of how we approach mental health for present and future generations.”
Psychiatric illnesses and neurological developmental disorders, including schizophrenia, affect 15-20 percent of people worldwide, but current treatments are only partially effective at best.
“Schizophrenia and autism rates have risen dramatically after past pandemics and we are deeply concerned about a similar impending wave of psychiatric illness following the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said Chief Investigator Kimberley McAllister, director of the Center for Neuroscience and a professor in the Department of Neurology at the School of Medicine; and Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences. “Newly funded projects at our center will reveal approaches to disease mitigation in offspring and even prevention in future pregnancies.”
The origin of mental illness
When a mother-to-be is exposed to a pathogen, such as a virus or a bacterial infection, her body’s immune response can in some cases trigger neurodevelopmental changes in her offspring. Conte Center’s initial support allowed an interdisciplinary team of researchers to discover that this immune response can result in offspring with changes in brain development and behavior that are surprisingly early in birth, similar to species different from mice and monkeys.
Changes in brain development and behavior observed in animal models are comparable to changes seen in human neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
Most pregnancies, however, are resistant to these risks. The question is how to determine which pregnancies are at risk and why.
“Because many of these diseases begin very early in development, often prenatally, we are particularly interested in understanding how a mother’s immune response during pregnancy alters brain health in her offspring,” McAllister said.
The future of mental health
Once these mechanisms are understood, scientists may be able to create new therapies, treatments and interventions optimized for the developmental age and sex of at-risk offspring after maternal infection, as well as approaches to prevent effects during high-risk pregnancies.
The purpose of the National Institute of Mental Health Silvio O. Conte Centers program is to support interdisciplinary teams of researchers dealing with high-risk, high-impact issues that will enhance our understanding of mental disorders and their treatment. The Conte Center Award recognizes the power of interdisciplinary research at UC Davis, and its researchers together represent a diverse coalition of experts from multiple departments and centers across UC Davis, including the Center for Neuroscience, MIND Institute, Center for Mind and Brain, California National Primate Research Center, High School for Biological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, High School of Letters and Science and High School of Engineering.
“The renewal of Conte Center grants for NIMH is proof of the revolutionary, interdisciplinary research conducted by UC Davis School of Medicine and our main partners on campus,” said Allison Brashear, dean of the School of Medicine. “It’s really impressive to see UC Davis bring together its world leaders in neurology, psychiatry, behavioral health and the biological sciences, among other things, to improve the health of present and future generations.”
University of California – Davis