UC Davis MIND Institute researchers will investigate this very high-risk population.
By Phyllis Brown, UC Davis
Researchers studying a genetic disorder that in childhood causes anxiety and learning differences, but in adolescence or early adulthood results in schizophrenia in nearly one third of those affected, will investigate how emotional and intellectual challenges impact the development of early psychosis symptoms in this very high-risk population, through a new five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
The grant will allow the UC Davis MIND Institute’s 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome Research Center and Clinic to assess how cognition, stress and emotions are associated with the the likelihood of developing psychosis among teens with chromosome 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, or 22q11.2DS — a genetic condition that previously has been known as Velocardiofacial Syndrome or DiGeorge Syndrome.
The symptoms of 22q11.2DS vary so widely that the condition often is misdiagnosed in childhood. Children may have a range of medical complications, including congenital heart disease, defects of the palate and mild facial anomalies. Infections are commonplace because of problems with their immune systems. Most children with 22q11.2DS have mild to moderate intellectual disability and difficulties with acquiring written and spoken language.
The center is led by Tony J. Simon, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who noted that news of the grant’s selection for funding came almost 10 years to the date from when he joined the MIND Institute. “This is truly ‘the grant that the MIND Institute made’,” Simon said.
“When I arrived at the MIND Institute, my primary focus on 22q11.2DS was on the cold cognitive neuroscience aspects of the learning difficulties,” he said. “But we were so strongly influenced and shaped by the MIND’s clinical translational environment, the interaction between our researchers and clinicians, and the intense time we spend with the kids we study and their families, that our research mission and how we approach it has been literally transformed.”
“Now our approach is to combine measures of neurocognitive and emotional functioning and stress biology with established and novel clinical measures to attempt to establish, not only the predictors of risk for, but also protection against psychotic thinking symptoms. As a result we might be able to reduce the burden of psychosis symptoms on the individual and their families, and maybe even prevent the development of schizophrenia in some,” Simon said.
The research will enroll 100 youth diagnosed with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome between the ages of 12 and 18 years and 50 age- and gender-matched typically developing youth, who will receive two assessments 2-1/2 years apart over the five-year life of the project. The measures will include cognitive functioning tasks that involve either positive or negative emotional stimuli along with variants that do not contain any emotional content.
Some of the tests will be done while brain activity is measured using Event-Related Potentials (ERP) in the MIND Institute’s new ERP Lab. ERPs measure specific responses from brain cells in reaction to events, images or sounds. They are measured by placing an elasticated cap in which are embedded numerous electrodes that can detect electrical brain activity merely by resting next to the scalp.
Stress hormone levels will be sampled during testing via simple saliva tests and all participants will complete a structured interview for psychosis-proneness symptoms carried out by a highly trained clinician. Brain connectivity will be assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A third assessment will be included, at 3-1/2 years, for a subset of young people whose psychosis symptoms worsen.
Other members of the project team include Cameron Carter, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Behavioral Health Center of Excellence and Imaging Research Center at UC Davis; Tara Niendam, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; Steven Luck, professor of psychology and director of the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain; and Emilio Ferrer, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. The team also will include consultants from Stanford University, Emory University and Tel Aviv University.
For more information visit the 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome Research Center and Clinic on the Web at www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/mindinstitute/research/cabil.