UC Davis receives $10 million grant to establish center to study schizophrenia

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 U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health, which will allow UC Davis’ Conte Center to investigate the novel hypothesis that an origin of schizophrenia could 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 U. S. population, it is crucial that we identify new pathways to address them, said Cameron Carter, professor in the Department of Psychiatry 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,” Carter said. “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.”

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

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, which alters 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 from an unprecedented approach that involved the coordination of experiments by 5 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. Led by Kimberley McAllister, associate director of the Center for Neuroscience, the team uncovered that dysregulation of immune signaling molecules in the brain leads to altered neural circuitry and function, which cause the aberrant behaviors characteristic of schizophrenia.

This 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.

“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 the Office of Research. “As a result, UC Davis now will join just a handful of institutions that will conduct coordinated translational research aimed improved diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia.”

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, Center for Neuroscience and the recently established Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis.

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:

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