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Providence Journal (07/03/2012)
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Research As Federal Funds Dry Up

Psychology Research Laboratory

Current Research: Gene Discovery and Personalized Treatment

Dr. Deborah Levy and her colleagues are engaged in breakthrough research into the genetic causes of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. This research can furnish invaluable clues about the biological underpinnings of these severe illnesses—and, in turn, lead to individually tailored treatments to people suffering from these diseases.

Gene discovery is essential for identifying the genetic causes of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. Dr. Deborah Levy and her colleagues have discovered an unusually high rate of certain kinds of rare genetic mutations in people with schizophrenia. Mutations in these same genes are also found in people with bipolar disorder and autism. In some families, these mutations were inherited from a parent, but often, the mutations arise spontaneously as de novo events; that is, the genetic mutations are new in the patient, rather than mutations passed down by a family member. This is one reason that these illnesses can occur in the absence of a family history of psychiatric disease.

Deborah L. Levy, PhD

Deborah L. Levy, Ph.D.

Dr. Levy's multifaceted research involves the study the genetic mutations in families who have a high probability of carrying such mutations. She and her colleagues are also creating genetically modified mice with mutations seen in humans with psychiatric disease and studying their effects in the brains of these mice and on their behavior. Some of the mutations they have discovered have important treatment implications because these mutations reveal and identify a specific mechanism associated with disease. This knowledge makes it possible in some cases to develop individual treatment interventions that target specific genetic causes, with the hope of improving clinical responses to medications.

Dr. Levy's work is vital to discovering the causes of mental illness and finding more effective treatments. Research such as hers, which has the promise to improve symptoms and outcome, provides hope for many millions of people. At a time when the science is so exciting and promising, your support is vital to Dr. Levy's ability to sustain a robust and innovative psychiatric research program. Recent economic conditions have hindered the flow of funds for research, threatening the pace of scientific progress. Nevertheless, Dr. Levy and her colleagues are steadfast in their dedication to conducting research that can improve people's lives. She needs your support to continue her important work and is thankful to all who believe in and support her scientific mission.

To earmark your support for the research of Dr. Levy and her colleagues, please click: Your Donations Support Our Work.

Founding and History of the Psychology Research Laboratory

McLean Grounds

Founded in 1977 by Seymour S. Kety, M.D., the Psychology Research Laboratory has had a long tradition of distinguished leadership and scientific excellence under the stewardship of Philip S. Holzman, Ph.D. (1977-1982), Dr. Holzman and Steven Matthysse, Ph.D. (1982-1991), and, from 1991-2004, Dr. Holzman, Dr. Matthysse and Deborah L. Levy, Ph.D. The current director, Dr. Levy, carries on the tradition and vision of the laboratory since the retirement of Dr. Matthysse and the death of Dr. Holzman in 2004.

For many years this laboratory has been interested in the genetic contributions to major psychiatric illness. Certain traits are not only strongly associated with schizophrenia, but also have a much higher prevalence than schizophrenia in relatives of schizophrenics. We have focused intensively on characterizing these schizophrenia-related traits, because they may be pleiotropic effects (variable manifestations) of schizophrenia-related genes. Importantly, unlike schizophrenia, which is generally thought to involve a number of co-acting genes, family data on the schizophrenia-related traits are consistent with monogenic transmission models, and may therefore clarify the complex genetics of schizophrenia. Several of these schizophrenia-related traits stand out as especially probative for clarifying the neurobiological interpretation of schizophrenia susceptibility loci. These include smooth pursuit eye movements, specific kinds of formal thought disorder, spatial working memory, relational memory, and a certain kind of craniofacial dysmorphology. The qualitative and quantitative phenotypes that we have developed for these schizophrenia-related traits may both improve power to detect linkage to schizophrenia genes and clarify the neurobiological interpretation of linkages that are found. Analogous endophenotypes have been developed for bipolar disorder and are become a growing focus of work in the Psychology Research Laboratory.


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