January 11, 2010

Campaign Emory

Gifts target mental illness research

Elaine Walker

Two foundations have recently given gifts to support Emory researchers studying the causes and prevention of serious mental illness in youth.

Elaine Walker in Emory’s Department of Psychology is collaborating with other investigators in a study of the precursors of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.  These illnesses typically arise in young adulthood, and can be chronic and debilitating.

The prodromal period, which is the focus of this research, is the period of functional decline and gradual onset of symptoms. Early signs can become apparent around 17 to 18 years old, with the onset of psychotic disorders usually occurring in the early 20s.

“By focusing our efforts on young people who are manifesting prodromal signs, we are increasing our ability to predict psychotic outcomes,” says Walker, the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of psychology and neuroscience and a principal investigator in the research project.

The recent gifts—from the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO) and the Coles-Novak Family Foundation—have been instrumental to the program, Walker says.

In addition to hosting a fundraising dinner in Atlanta, Shari and Garen Staglin with IMHRO also have contributed money for a new neuroimaging (fMRI) project that will examine functional brain activity in youth at-risk for psychosis, Walker says.

“The Staglin family has devoted not only an incredible amount of time, but also significant financial resources to research on mental health,” she adds. 

“The Coles-Novak Family Foundation is also helping us to further our research efforts and support professional staff required to conduct this multi-faceted and complex research,” Walker says.

A key part of the research is studying the mechanisms of the brain in conjunction with changes over time, Walker says. Having a better understanding of what’s happening inside the brain can move researchers one step closer to preventing schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders in youth. Walker also is studying hormonal changes, cognitive development, and emotional development.

The work at Emory is part of an eight-site research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

These foundation gifts are part of Campaign Emory, a $1.6 billion fund-raising endeavor that combines private support and the University’s people, places, and programs to make a powerful contribution to the world. Investments through Campaign Emory fuel efforts to improve health, gain ground in science and technology, resolve conflict, harness the power of the arts, and educate the heart and mind.

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