National Institute of Mental Health Awards $9.8M Grant to Establish Unique Research Center for First-Episode Schizophrenia

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Scientists at The Zucker Hillside Hospital have received a $9.8 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop a new center to study the characteristics of people in the throes of their first episode of schizophrenia.

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It is very important that we determine how we can best treat patients in the first episode so that they have a better chance of recovery

Scientists at The Zucker Hillside Hospital have received a $9.8 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop a new center to study the characteristics of people in the throes of their first episode of schizophrenia. The studies will be designed to identify who gets better over the course of one year given the best available drug therapy, family support and state-of-the-art psychiatric care. People enrolled in the study will undergo an evaluation that includes brain scans, DNA analysis, and neuropsychological assessments and receive treatment with a second-generation schizophrenia medication and be followed closely for a year. The hope is to identify a range of factors – biological, social and genetic – that could help doctors predict who will get better and who won’t, and then find the best possible alternative treatments for those who need them.

Every year, at least 100,000 people on the brink of adulthood show up in emergency rooms throughout the country with frightening symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, bizarre behavior or paranoid thoughts – the hallmark signs of schizophrenia. It is a devastating diagnosis for patients and families. Schizophrenia occurs in one out of 100 people. The disease generally strikes in late adolescence and early adulthood.

The federal grant will be paid over a five-year period. The studies will focus on identifying ways to predict how first-episode patients will do over the course of the year-long treatment period. Brain scans will be taken to see whether there are regions or groups of nerve cells in the brain that change over time in response to effective treatment. They will also use diffusion tensor imaging to measure the integrity of the brain’s white matter. The white matter contains the long, telephone wire-like projections that allow one part of the brain to communicate with other parts of the brain. While no one knows what causes schizophrenia, one major theory is that neural networks don’t develop properly and the signals that go from cell to cell are getting crossed. It could explain why people with schizophrenia hallucinate, or hear voices that appear to come from outside sources rather than from within.

“It is very important that we determine how we can best treat patients in the first episode so that they have a better chance of recovery,” said John M. Kane, MD, chairman of psychiatry at The Zucker Hillside Hospital and director of the new center. We have a major opportunity to turn the course of this disease around for millions of patients and their families.”

In addition to the hallucinations and delusions, patients have a range of thinking and attention problems, as well as difficulty feeling pleasure and getting motivated to take part in activities. Motivation is a major driving factor in the disease. Researchers will also test to see whether medication helps with some of these neurocognitive problems. Anil Malhotra, MD a lead investigator and co-director of the new center, will be overseeing whole genome studies to identify any genetic markers that can help predict who will do better on specific medications and who won’t. They will be looking for acute and long-term responses to treatment.

Zucker Hillside Hospital scientists, members of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, have led the way in research on first-episode patients for more than two decades. The hospital has played a major role in establishing the best treatment approaches for the initial phases of this illness and beyond. For more information on joining the study call 718-470-8418.

Contact: Jamie Talan, science writer-in-residence
516-562-1232 (p) 631-682-8781 (c)

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Jamie Talan

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