All medical research strives to untangle complex processes in the body so as to be able to intervene better in treating illness. Biological psychiatrists are working to be able to question what in the brain makes individuals vulnerable for mental illness and to categorize illnesses. Toward that end, they are drawing upon research tools never before available; tools for imaging the brain’s structure and activity, for studying genes and genomes, cells and molecules; tools that are powerful, safe and reliable. Neuroscience has entered an era in which questions that were once unanswerable can now be answered.
The oldest method of study in medicine is clinical observation: how a patient looks, acts and feels – what is called a phenotype. As opposed to the genotype, which is the basic set of genes common to a species, the phenotype is the way genes play out in a particular individual: brown eyes or blue, for instance. But also evident are such things as signs of psychosis. There is also a method called evoked phenotype. Physicians look for underlying heart problems by using a stress test. Behavioral problems can be evoked, for example, with memory tests or by how well or poorly a patient reads social cues, or with brain imaging that observes activity or blood flow in the brain when a patient performs a specific task.
An important, ubiquitous research tool is the use of animal models. While there can be no exact animal models of human mental illnesses – a mouse with schizophrenia, for instance – specific features associated with a disorder, such as problems of learning and memory seen in schizophrenia, can be induced in animals through an array of genetic technologies.
Endophenotype, also called intermediate phenotype, relates to behaviors and brain activity seen in people with an illness that are also present in first-degree relatives who may or may not be ill. Many current studies are examining families of people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses to gain clues as to the reasons illness develops in one member of the family and not another.
These methods are likened to zooming in and out with a camera; zooming in for as close a picture as possible, zooming out to try to see what is common to different disorders based on the growing evidence of overlap across disorders in phenotype, symptoms and the brain systems underlying particular behaviors.
In partnership with University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
HEALTHY MINDS ACROSS AMERICA
Discovery to Recovery through Science
More than 40 institutions across the United States and Canada partnered with NARSAD, now Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, in presenting its “Healthy Minds Across America” series of public talks in 2010. Each event helped to bring science to families seeking hope for better treatments of a broad range of mental illnesses. The following pages contain highlights of presentations from various venues in the series. Full transcripts of the talks are available at www.bbrfoundatin.org/events. Click “Past Research Events.”