Driving Innovation in Mental Health Research

David Ross is on a mission to modernize psychiatric education for the next generation of mental health practitioners. Christopher Bartley is upending research on schizophrenia. Both of these visionaries have moved forward in their trajectory thanks to one individual deeply involved in the future of mental health—Deeda Blair.

BlairMrs. William McCormick Blair, Jr., a member of the FNIH Board of Directors, established the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain in 2021 to provide flexible, unrestricted funding to physician-scientists who are exploring innovative ideas that could challenge and potentially transform current approaches to mental illness. The initiative is a tribute to her son, who struggled with depression and anxiety as a young adult and eventually took his own life.

This program is to support young researchers with exceptional promise who will explore creative new ideas and even high-risk disruptive research to accelerate new targets and innovative approaches to mental illness”

—Deeda Blair

We caught up with two of the three inaugural award recipients to learn of their accomplishments over the last few years:

David RossDavid Ross, MD, PhD, while associate residency director at Yale University, co-founded the innovative National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative (NNCI) to transform the medical educational model, create tools to help psychiatrists and other mental health professionals integrate cutting-edge neuroscience into clinical practice, and ultimately provide better care to patients. As the NNCI grew in reach and reputation, Dr. Ross was recruited to become professor and chair of the Psychiatry Department at the University of Alberta.

“Psychiatry is a very old field, more than a century, but for most of that time we’ve had no understanding of the actual biology of psychiatric illnesses,” said Dr. Ross. “Only in the last 20 to 30 years have we had the tools that could allow us to study the brain in a rigorous way. Modern neuroscience research has the potential to redefine how we think about illnesses, how we treat illnesses, how we engage with people publicly. Up until very recently, this new research simply wasn’t translating into the clinical practice of psychiatry.”

With the funding from the Blair Research Initiative, Dr. Ross was able to greatly expand the range of faculty development and learning opportunities through the NNCI, which now includes interactive classroom sessions, sample case studies, brief accessible reviews, clinical commentaries on individual psychiatric concepts, and short videos on “cool stuff.”

Dr. Ross’s broader mission is to engage directly with patients, families, and the public to increase understanding of mental illness and remove the stigma of treating it.

All of the structures of medicine are built to support a particular model of funding; and there is virtually no funding in the space of education—how to train clinicians and how to engage with broader communities,” he said. “The award from Deeda Blair enabled us to do this type of work at a scale that could not have been accomplished otherwise.”

Christopher BartleyFor Christopher Bartley, MD, PhD, the Deeda Blair Initiative allowed him to leave an instructor position at the University of California San Francisco and establish his own independent lab to advance his investigation of autoimmune processes that may cause symptoms of schizophrenia in some patients. He is now chief of the Translational Immunopsychiatry Unit at the National Institute of Mental Health at NIH.

Building on a 2007 breakthrough discovery that a single antibody can trigger an autoimmune inflammation in the brain that mimics psychotic symptoms in a small subset of patients, Dr. Bartley is working to improve on existing immune profiling technology and use it not only to identify novel autoantibodies associated with schizophrenia but also determine precisely where these antibodies bind to proteins in the brain.

“In the future, those antibodies can help us understand the mechanism of illness in those individuals, serve as diagnostic biomarkers that indicate an individual has a neuro-inflammatory subtype of a disorder, and point to precision therapies for those individuals,” says Dr. Bartley.

Dr. Bartley notes that that the Deeda Blair Initiative supports taking risks and pursuing innovative basic research, in contrast to traditional research grants that are often awarded based on feasibility: “She is so personally invested in this and really motivated to fund this type of research. I hope it can serve as a bridge for others who have creative ideas with the potential to make an impact.”

For more information on the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain, see Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain | The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (fnih.org)

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