The University of California, Davis, will establish a center to advance research into the origins of schizophrenia—one of only 15 such centers in the U.S.—through a $10 million grant from the NIH’s National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).

Central to the new Silvio O. Conte Center for Basic or Translational Mental-Health Research, UC Davis said, will be exploring the hypothesis that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder. An important factor in its cause, the center reasons, is the activation of a family of immune molecules that alter fetal brain development, leading to structural and functional changes in connectivity resulting in the emergence of psychosis in adolescence and young adulthood.

The Conte Center will provide $2 million each year for five years to fund four distinct but highly synergistic projects. Investigators will explore when and how maternal immune activation alters immune signaling in the brain, and whether it leads to schizophrenia-causing changes in synaptic connectivity, gene expression, functional connectivity, dopamine dysregulation and neural inflammation.

The center is named for former Rep. Silvio O. Conte (1921-1991), a 16-term Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who championed neuroscience research and the severely mentally ill.

The center will also award grants to support what it considers innovative, collaborative interdisciplinary research that will advance brain and behavioral-health discoveries capable of supporting new approaches to psychiatric disorders. The center also aims to create interdisciplinary basic and translational research opportunities for investigators in training; as well as support research that integrates basic- and clinical-neuroscience investigations into severe mental illness, and demonstrates “extraordinary” synergy across disciplines.

According to UC Davis, the Conte Center emerged from the coordination of experiments by five research groups. The groups are based in the UC Davis School of Medicine, the College of Biological Sciences, the College of Letters and Sciences, and the School of Engineering.

Kimberley McAllister, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Neuroscience, led the research team that found that maternal immune activation leads to long-lasting alterations in the expression of immune molecules in the brains of offspring. The altered immune molecules are identical across disparate species. The Conte Center will test the researchers’ hypothesis that this central immune-signaling pathway in the brain may cause changes in neural circuitry and function, eventually leading to behaviors characteristic of schizophrenia.

If the hypothesis proves to be true, then the immune molecules will be potential new targets for earlier diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia and other potential neural-immune-based psychiatric disorders, UC Davis reasons.

Cameron Carter, M.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said in a statement that the Conte Center will bring together investigators based at multiple centers, departments and colleges at UC Davis and beyond.

“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,” said Dr. Carter, the principal investigator for the Conte Center grant, and also director of the recently-established UC Davis Center for Behavioral Health.

Dr. Carter will be joined in the enterprise by Dr. McAllister and other neuroscience investigators, including:

  • David Amaral, research director, UC Davis MIND Institute;
  • Melissa Bauman, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, UC Davis MIND Institute;
  • Simon Cherry, distinguished professor of biomedical engineering, UC Davis Center of Excellence in Translational Molecular Imaging
  • Jacqueline Crawley, Robert E. Chason Endowed Chair in Translational Research, UC Davis MIND Institute
  • Daniel Geschwind, Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Chair, Human Genetics, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA
  • Ana-Maria Iosif, associate adjunct professor, Division of Biostatistics
  • Tyler Lesh, assistant project scientist, UC Davis Imaging Research Center
  • Richard Maddock, research professor of psychiatry
  • Julie Rainwater, Director, UC Davis Schools of Health Evaluation Unit
  • Cynthia Schumann, director, Brain Endowment for Autism Research Sciences, UC Davis MIND Institute
  • Judy Van de Water, UC Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health, Professor of Internal Medicine

According to NIMH, mental illnesses account for 21.3 percent of all years lived with disability in the U.S., while an estimated 9.6 million American adults suffer from a serious mental illness in which the ability to function in daily life is significantly impaired.

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