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Federal grant funds Conte Center for schizophrenia research;
studies focus on brain development from womb to early adulthood

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicineís department of psychiatry has received a five-year grant of more than $9.3 million to form a new Silvio O. Conte Center for the Neuroscience of Mental Disorders to study the onset of schizophrenia.

The new center brings together a diverse group of experts from four universities to conduct comprehensive studies of brain development in the earliest stages of life through early adulthood, when the disease is typically diagnosed.

The UNC Conte Center is one of 20 centers in the United States and one of only two named this year. Conte Centers are funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and were created to honor former U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte, a longtime advocate for research on brain diseases who died in 1991.

Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, the Thad and Alice Eure Distinguished Professor of psychiatry, pharmacology and radiology, is the principal investigator for the UNC Conte Center. Dr. Anthony LaMantia, associate professor of cell and molecular physiology, and Dr. John Gilmore, professor of psychiatry, are co-principal investigators.

They have assembled a multidisciplinary team of scientists from UNC, Duke University, Harvard University and the University of Washington to conduct the centerís research. The team includes experts in many scientific fields including adult and child psychiatry, medical genetics, obstetrics and gynecology, neonatology, radiology, computer science and biostatistics.

"The essential and distinctive aspect of this center is that it unites the intellectual resources of four great universities and the expertise of individuals from diverse scientific disciplines," said Lieberman. "Through our collective findings, we hope to explain how certain behavioral and neurobiological factors transform apparently normal individuals to persons with the symptoms of schizophrenia. This could lead to more effective treatment and, possibly, prevention of this debilitating disease."

Conte Centers typically involve multiple research projects investigating severe mental illness. The UNC Conte Center will conduct four interrelated studies using distinct research methods. Researchers will attempt to identify critical brain events that trigger the development of psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia.

One study will use ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine prenatal and neonatal brain development in the children of women with schizophrenia, a technique being used for the first time in schizophrenia research. Children will be monitored from the second trimester of pregnancy through two weeks after birth. The brain development of these children will be assessed from birth until age 2 with standardized tests of motor and language development and memory and attention. Findings from this study may allow early identification of high-risk children, making it possible to provide early intervention and prevent or mitigate the risk of developing schizophrenia or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

In other UNC Conte studies, researchers will track the development of healthy brains from infancy to early adulthood and use state-of-the-art neuroimaging to examine brain function in high-risk adolescents and young adults.

The center also aims to develop a model for genetic and cellular influences of the GABAergic interneurons, which regulate the neural pathways most closely associated with the development of schizophrenia.

"The plain and simple reality is that we do not know how or by what mechanism the brain develops abnormally in individuals with schizophrenia," Lieberman said. "We hope to explain what neurobiological and behavioral mechanisms are disrupted before the disease is diagnosed."

Besides Lieberman, LaMantia and Gilmore, principal investigators for the studies are Drs. Aysenil Belger, Guido Gerig, Robert Hamer, Fred Jarskog, Patricia Maness and Diana Perkins from UNC and Drs. Gregory McCarthy, Cecil Charles, Barbara Hertzberg and Richard Keefe from Duke.

The Conte grant is the second largest research award granted to the department of psychiatry. The department ranks seventh among psychiatry programs that receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, receiving $18 million in 2001. Overall, the UNC School of Medicine ranks 14th and the university ranks 12th.

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