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San Antonio receives major support for mental health research

Health Science Center nets more NARSAD grant awards than any other U.S. institution

Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are two of the most common mental illnesses, collectively affecting more than 4.5 million people in the United States. But researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) are developing better medications, therapies and a better understanding of mental illness, thanks to major funding from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD).

NARSAD granted four Health Science Center researchers the Independent Investigator award. The UTHSCSA received more NARSAD grant awards than any other institution during this funding period. The grants will support three projects in the department of psychiatry and one project in the department of pharmacology.

"We are very excited to see this nationally noteworthy recognition of the excellence of these faculty members, who are representative of the quality of psychiatric research that is broadly characteristic of the department of psychiatry," said Charles Bowden, M.D., professor and chair, department of psychiatry. "The fourth award, in pharmacology, highlights the strong bidirectional collaborations between the departments of psychiatry and pharmacology at the Health Science Center."

Each investigator received a two-year, $100,000 grant. The money will fund the following mental health research projects:

William Clarke, Ph.D.
Associate professor, pharmacology

Dr. Clarke is working to develop a more effective class of anti-psychotic drugs by gaining a better understanding of how current treatments work. Doctors often prescribe Clozaril® and Zyprexa® to treat schizophrenia. While the drugs have proven to be effective, scientists have yet to understand how they react with a group of proteins called serotonin 2A and serotonin 2C receptors. These proteins are located on certain nerve cells in the brain and are activated by the neurotransmitter serotonin. If Dr. Clarke can identify how the anti-psychotic drugs interact with serotonin 2A and serotonin2C receptors at the cellular level, he will open the door to more targeted and better therapeutic agents.

Michael A. Escamilla, M.D.
Assistant professor, psychiatry

Dr. Escamilla ultimately hopes to identify the biological, genetic origins of severe, inherited psychotic disorders. His work involves isolating chromosomes that may carry a genetic component for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He is studying a "founder" population in Costa Rica. A founder population is a group in which most current members come from a small group of ancestors.

Jair C. Soares, M.D.
Associate professor, psychiatry

Dr. Soares will determine if specific brain abnormalities present in bipolar patients are inherited and if they are indicators of the illness. He is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to take snapshots of the brain. His work could lead to identifying trait markers for those most at risk of developing the disorder.

Dawn I. Velligan, Ph.D.
Assistant professor, psychiatry

Dr. Velligan will determine if cognitive remediation is an effective treatment for schizophrenic patients. Cognitive remediation uses computer games to teach cognitive skills such as paying attention, organizing information and remembering. These skills can greatly help schizophrenic patients improve the quality of their daily lives by improving their ability to make decisions, correct mistakes and respond to new situations.

Contact: Amanda Gallagher or Aileen Salinas