UC Davis Receives $10 Million Grant to Establish Center to Study Schizophrenia

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New Silvio O. Conte Center for Basic or Translational Mental-Health Research is one of only 15 nationwide

This center brings together an exceptional team that exemplifies the collaborative culture of UC Davis, with investigators from multiple centers, departments and colleges at UC Davis and beyond, all working together. -- Cameron Carter

UC Davis will establish a prestigious, leading-edge center to advance innovative research into the origins of schizophrenia: A Silvio O. Conte Center for Basic or Translational Mental-Health Research, one of only 15 such centers in the United States.

The center will be funded through a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health, which will allow UC Davis’ Conte Center to investigate the novel hypothesis that an origin of schizophrenia may be dysregulation of immune molecules that play a key role in the normal development and functioning of connections in the brain.

Because mental-health disorders affect between 15 and 20 percent of the United States population, it is crucial to identify new pathways to address them, said Cameron Carter, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the principal investigator for the Conte Center grant.

“This center brings together an exceptional team that exemplifies the collaborative culture of UC Davis, with investigators from multiple centers, departments and colleges at UC Davis and beyond, all working together,” said Carter, who also is director of the newly established UC Davis Center for Behavioral Health.

“It places UC Davis in the upper echelon of mental-health research institutions in the world, and is testimony to the strength and depth of our basic and translational science enterprise,” Carter said.

Conte Center grants support innovative, collaborative interdisciplinary research that advances brain and behavioral-health discoveries that lay the groundwork for new approaches to psychiatric disorders by integrating basic- and clinical-neuroscience investigations into severe mental illness and employing extraordinary synergy across disciplines. The grants are named for 16-term Pennsylvania Rep. Silvio O. Conte, a champion of neuroscience research and the severely mentally ill.

Schizophrenia and maternal immune activation

Central to the UC Davis Conte Center will be exploring the hypothesis that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder, and that one important factor in its cause is the activation of a family of immune molecules that alter fetal brain development, leading to structural and functional changes in connectivity that result in the emergence of psychosis in adolescence and young adulthood.        

Through four highly interactive projects, the investigators will explore when and how maternal immune activation alters immune signaling in the brain, and whether it leads to changes in synaptic connectivity, gene expression, functional connectivity, dopamine dysregulation and neural inflammation, causing schizophrenia.

The research will employ state-of-the-art techniques from molecular, cellular and cognitive neuroscience to elucidate how changes in immune molecules in the developing brain may uncover a common pathway through which genetic and environmental risk factors lead to the changes in brain function that underlie development of serious psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia.

The center emerged out of an unprecedented approach that involved the coordination of experiments by five accomplished research groups with appointments in the UC Davis School of Medicine, the College of Biological Sciences, the College of Letters and Sciences, and the School of Engineering.

Center had its genesis in RISE grant

Led by Kimberley McAllister, associate director of the Center for Neuroscience, the team found that maternal immune activation leads to long-lasting alterations in the expression of immune molecules in the brains of offspring. Importantly, this subset of altered immune molecules is identical across disparate species, implying that this central immune-signaling pathway in the brain may cause changes in neural circuitry and function, eventually leading to the aberrant behaviors characteristic of schizophrenia. The Conte Center will test this hypothesis.

If true, then these immune molecules will serve as important new targets for developing novel diagnostic tools and a new class of therapeutics for earlier diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia and other potential neural-immune-based psychiatric disorders.

McAllister's concerted effort was made possible by a grant through the Research Investments in the Sciences and Engineering (RISE) Program from the Office of Research at UC Davis.

“I am delighted that the hard work and collaborative efforts of our RISE team led to this Conte Center award to UC Davis," McAllister said. "This group of faculty, trainees and staff are an incredible group of people to work with and it was only through their creative collaborations that we were able to generate the preliminary data for the Conte Center."

"The RISE Program allowed us to take scientific risks that we would never have been able to consider without this unique form of support from the UC Davis Office of Research," McAllister said.

“This historic success by UC Davis demonstrates how modest campus investments in focused, interdisciplinary faculty teams can result in breakthrough discoveries that in turn can lead to major federal funding for research that addresses grand-challenge problems in medicine,” said Harris Lewin, vice chancellor for Research Evolution and Ecology. “As a result, UC Davis now will join just a handful of institutions that will conduct coordinated translational research aimed at improved diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia."

Collaborating across disciplines

The center also will create interdisciplinary basic and translational research opportunities for investigators in training, said Carter, who also is director of the UC Davis Imaging Research Center and Center for Neuroscience.

The Conte Center will provide $2 million each year for five years to fund four distinct but highly synergistic projects. Carter will be joined in the enterprise by a team of elite neuroscience investigators, including:

  •     Kimberley McAllister, associate director, UC Davis Center for NeuroscienceDavid Amaral, research director, UC Davis MIND InstituteMelissa Bauman, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, UC Davis MIND Institute
  •     Simon Cherry, distinguished professor of biomedical engineering, UC Davis Center of Excellence in Translational Molecular ImagingJacqueline Crawley, Robert E. Chason Endowed Chair in Translational Research, UC Davis MIND Institute
  •     Daniel Geschwind, Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Chair, Human Genetics, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA
  •     Ana Maria Iosif, associate professor, Division of Biostatistics, Department of Public Health Sciences
  •     Tyler Lesh, assistant project scientist, UC Davis Imaging Research CenterRichard Maddock, emeritus professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesJulie Rainwater, research scientist, Clinical and Translational Science CenterCynthia Schumann, director, Brain Endowment for Autism Research Sciences Program, UC Davis MIND Institute
  •     Judy Van de Water, director, UC Davis Center for Children's Environmental Health and UC Davis MIND Institute

For more information, visit healthsystem.ucdavis.edu.

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Phyllis Brown
UC Davis MIND Institute
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