Research News

Mental health research fund lauds VU scientists

photos of scientists
Left to right: Karen Gregory, Elizabeth Hammock, Peilin Jia, John Panos

Eight Vanderbilt University scientists have won 2010 Young Investigator Awards from NARSAD, the world’s leading mental health research charity.

Each scientist will receive up to $60,000 over two years for innovative brain and behavioral studies of serious psychiatric disorders. The grants allow promising new researchers, typically postdoctoral fellows and assistant professors, to generate the pilot data necessary to obtain additional research funding.

Since 1987, NARSAD, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, has awarded more than 4,000 Young Investigator grants exceeding $274 million for investigations of schizophrenia, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and child and adolescent psychiatric disorders.

“Experience has demonstrated that support for the NARSAD Young Investigator program is the most effective way to further the massive effort needed to conquer the mental disorders that plague humanity,” said Herbert Meltzer, M.D., Bixler/May/Johnson Professor of Psychiatry and professor of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt.

Meltzer, a founding member of the NARSAD Scientific Council, led the 2010 Young Investigator selection process. The eight Vanderbilt scientists, among 214 awardees chosen from more than 1,000 applicants worldwide, are listed below.

Left to right: Shuqun Shi, Ph.D.; Jingchun Sun, Ph.D.; Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, M.D.; Qi Zhang, Ph.D.
Left to right: Shuqun Shi, Jingchun Sun, Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, Qi Zhang

Karen Gregory, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Pharmacology, is studying the metabotropic glutamate receptor 5 (mGlu5) as a novel therapeutic target for schizophrenia. In particular, she is assessing how allosteric potentiators bind to and affect the function of mGlu5 in order to facilitate rational drug design.

Elizabeth Hammock, Ph.D., instructor in Pediatric Endocrinology, is exploring the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the development of social behaviors in mammals, and the potential interaction between the oxytocin and serotonin systems during early life. This knowledge may aid the development more effective intervention strategies in individuals with atypical development such as autism and schizophrenia.

Peilin Jia, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, will conduct a genomic study to identify gene sets associated with schizophrenia that could not be identified at the single marker or single gene level.

John Panos, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry, has the goal of identifying novel treatments to prevent or treat deficits in learning, memory and executive function, the major factors leading to functional impairment in schizophrenia, through intensive study of a well-validated animal model of the schizophrenia deficit.

Shuqun Shi, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Biological Sciences, is exploring the link between circadian rhythms and mental health. He will analyze the effects of a polymorphism, or genetic variation, in a central circadian clock gene that previously has been associated with hypersomnia, disabling daytime sleepiness, in major depressive disorder.

Jingchun Sun, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, will study the influence of genetics on the presentation of symptoms in mental disorders, specifically in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, M.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, is studying the molecular genetic basis of autism spectrum disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He hopes to identify new targets for treatment by targeting the underlying brain circuits involved in OCD and particularly the impact of genetic variations in the glutamate system.

Qi Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pharmacology, will use a super-resolution optical imaging method he developed to study a key mechanism of neurotransmission, at the level of synaptic vesicles, to improve understanding and eventually treatment of mental disorders including schizophrenia and depression.