FNIH Announces Second Round of Awards by the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain

North Bethesda, MD, January 31, 2023 – The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) announces the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain’s second round of awards to drive innovation in mental health research.

Conceived by Mrs. William McCormick Blair, Jr., a member of the FNIH Board of Directors, the Research Initiative supports the taking of risks and creative—even disruptive—ideas to accelerate diagnoses and treatments for severe mental illness. The ultimate goal is to foster transformative change, to save lives, and to prevent great pain and suffering by helping uncover new targets and approaches for therapy.

A cross-disciplinary group of leaders from major scientific institutions, clinical practice, and industry comprise the award selection committee. The four 2023 awardees each receive $100,000.

  • Neal Amin, MD, PhD, at Stanford University, for his proposal to develop a molecular differentiation atlas of the human brain with 3D stem cell models to investigate neurons implicated in psychiatric disorders.Our capacity to develop new treatments for psychiatric disorders is limited by an inability to biologically investigate living human neurons that are relevant to brain circuit dysfunction. This study will advance a systematic framework for human cellular brain research by applying machine learning and RNA coding in the cell to develop 3D stem cell models of the brain called organoids. The result will be a leap forward in our ability to investigate characteristics in human neuron types, including highly specialized cortical and subcortical neuronal subpopulations that might contribute to anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorders.
  • Juliet Beni Edgcomb, MD, PhD, at University of California, Los Angeles, for her proposal to develop phenotype algorithms for the identification of childhood-onset serious mental illness in electronic health records using informatics and data science approaches.Current ability to predict and intervene before a child experiences severe mental illness is limited by the substantial developmental variation in clinical symptoms and signposts leading to illness across the age spectrum. This study seeks to improve the detection of high morbidity in mental illnesses (unipolar depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, psychosis) and suicide attempts by using cutting-edge computation to analyze characteristics in the electronic health records of 10- to 17-year-olds. The long-term goal is to accelerate advances in diagnosis and early intervention, and design more effective and targeted prevention efforts.
  • Youngjung Kim, MD, PhD, at Massachusetts General Hospital, for her proposal to identify the molecular mechanisms of metabolic reprogramming in psychiatric illnesses through patient-derived cellular models.Recent genome-wide association studies have highlighted points of places in the brain associated with metabolism as key genetic vulnerabilities for psychiatric disorders, including mood disorders. This innovative proposal will leverage genome editing, a method for making specific changes to the DNA of a cell or organism in order to add, remove or alter the DNA in the genome. Genome editing cellular models derived from people who have an impaired ability to regulate and/or tolerate negative emotional states and healthy control individuals will enable us to develop a better understanding of the disease risk from genetic effects on metabolism. This understanding may help to inform more targeted treatments for a range of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder
  • Jonathan Power, MD, PhD, at Weill Cornell Medical College, for his proposal to create precision functional brain mapping that informs circuit-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation to modulate human behavior.Afflictions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are increasingly being treated with non-invasive brain stimulation, using tools like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Response to TMS treatment should depend on stimulating the right neural circuits, a population of neurons interconnected by synapses that carry out a specific function when activated. However, our scientific understanding of where particular circuits lie in an individual patient, and how specifically we can target a desired circuit, are both rudimentary. This project seeks to define circuits in individuals, and to test the limits of TMS specificity in activating particular brain circuits, paving the way for more precise, targeted applications of TMS in mental illness.

The inaugural awards in 2021 have had significant impact for the following clinician-scientists, enabling them to execute their innovative projects:

  • Christopher Bartley, MD, PhD, now at the National Institutes of Health, has improved existing immune profiling technology and used it to identify novel autoantibodies associated with schizophrenia and determine precisely where these antibodies bind to proteins in the brain.
  • Sarah Fineberg, MD, PhD, at Yale University, has used technology and pattern analysis to identify and validate early relationship ruptures in borderline personality disorder.
  • David Ross, MD, PhD, at the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative, and now at the University of Alberta, has worked to transform the medical educational model, creating tools to help psychiatrists and other mental health professionals integrate cutting-edge neuroscience into clinical practice and ultimately provide better care to patients.

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.”

“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,” said Mrs. Blair.

Learn more about the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain here.

About the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health:

The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) connects the world’s leading public and private organizations to accelerate biomedical breakthroughs for patients, regardless of who they are, where they live, or what disease they have. Together with the best minds and a track record of navigating complex problems, the FNIH accelerates new therapies, diagnostics, and potential cures; advances global health and equity in care; and celebrates and trains the next generation of scientists. Established by Congress in 1990, the FNIH is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization. For more information about the FNIH, please visit fnih.org.

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