9 Professors Advancing Mental Health Today

Thanks to the (relatively) generous amount of grants, equipment, resources, and graduate students at their disposal, psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience professionals opting for academia enjoy some excellent opportunities to further their fields. As a result, some groundbreaking finds forever altering the industry – if not popular perceptions – so often pop onto the scene thanks to their research. Fostering a greater understanding of the mind’s most intimate functions leads to more sophisticated methods meant to ensure everyone leads the happiest, most stable lives possible, even if this means upending the establishment every once in a while.

Probably the most prominent – and controversial – name in psychology these days is David J. Kupfer at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He currently heads up the DSM-V Task Force, charged with maintaining order and consistency before the new diagnostic criteria for American psychological professionals rolls out May of this year. The game-changing role the publication plays in patients’ lives means a melange of praise as well as criticism, and it wound up pushed back from the original 2012 launch date to address the most major concerns. According to Kupfer’s Huffington Post article, clinical trials to justify any of the changes made to the DSM-V began in 2010. However, even before then, the psychology community criticized Kupfer’s lack of transparency as his task force updated the document. Locked-out psychology pros understandably still wish to track the proposed revisions – which include a major overhaul of the autism spectrum, the creation of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, official recognition of Binge Eating Disorder, and plenty more. All of which come packaged with their own sets of controversies. For example, Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, Autistic Disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome – all of which once involved their own unique diagnostic criteria – will all fall under the heading “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Parents, patients, educators, healthcare professionals, and activists find this switch disconcerting, as it might mean brand new, maybe unproven, treatments for kids and adults already receiving valuable assistance. While Kupfer’s Task Force has slowly exercised a little more effort to invite and consider commentary, hand-wringing over the changes, finalized in December 2012, continues. Nobody knows for certain if this ultimately means advancement or setbacks for American psychology professionals and their patients. Since science involves trial and error, however, the likelihood involves a mix of innovations and alterations once DSM-VI time rolls around.

The research of Alan R. Teo, Sarah R. Holley, Mark Leary, and Dale E. McNeil has recently been cited in discussions about the role of mental healthcare services in the gun control debate. Conducted when all four worked with the University of California, San Francisco, The Relationship Between Level of Training and Accuracy of Violence Risk Assessment illustrates the discrepancy in violence risk assessment accuracy between attending psychiatrists and psychiatric residents. Attending psychiatrists typically perform better readings determining a patient’s chances of harming themselves or others, at a rate of 70%. Unsurprisingly, the better-trained doctors boasted higher accuracy. But with mental illness a largely overlooked, but still wholly necessary, facet of current gun control discussions, these findings offer up some piercing insight. Providing faster, but no less viable, training to psychiatric professionals might increase the chances of intervening sooner and preventing more incidents. Researching more strategies meant to increase that 70% definitely hosts its benefits as well, especially since the UCSF study focused more on noting the discrepancies over best addressing them. The information proffered by these UCSF scientists makes for excellent groundwork for further inquiry into what needs to be done to curb violence before it occurs.

A Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory team of neuroscientists led by professors Bo Li and Z. Josh Huang released their findings on the physiological structure of fear. While the psychology industry has already understood the possible role of the amygdala in dictating emotions and reacting to rewards, the study, published in the January 2013 issue of Nature Neuroscience, expanded upon its relationship to both fear and memory. Li and Huang’s findings noted how a bundle of neurons located in the amygdala actively guides how humans learn, feel, and remember their fears and anxieties – great news for psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals seeking more effective treatment options. The central amygdala houses memories of fear, while the lateral subdivision serves as a sort of intermediary between remembering and processing. Such an arrangement triggers reactions, so a more comprehensive overview of how it all works means a promising future for anxiety and trauma patients. Li himself hopes to expand his recent work into treating PTSD and other diagnoses involving fear responses, which should prove of particular interest to the Armed Forces, FEMA, law enforcement officials, and rape crisis centers. Grasping the concepts physiologically means progress towards pharmacology as well. Great news for the psychology field, sure. But even better news for patients emotionally hamstrung by their anxieties.

New findings from University of California at Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab (also published in January 2013’s Nature Neuroscience) are being trumpeted as “landmark” in the search for strategies alleviating age-related dementia. Led by Associate Professor Matthew Walker, the team noted a correlation between sleep disruptions and disorders in the elderly and their subsequent inability to preserve memories. Their research noted that low-quality REM and “slow brain waves” (scientists measure brain waves in hertz) compromise the hippocampus’ functioning, meaning “memories may be getting stuck” and later demolished as new ones pop into existence. Now that Walker and his crew know of at least one physiological relationship defining dementia, further studies on how to best promote sleep and bolster the memory of aging patients are necessary. This sleep must absolutely involve the slower waves present in healthier brains, which act as a sort of nightly refresher for greater cognitive clarity the next morning. In fact, the Berkeley research noted a memory decline of up to 55% between older participants and their younger counterparts thanks to the dwindling amount of brain activity. And the former’s overall quality of sleep proved even more distressing; on the whole, the decline stood at about 75% worse amongst the more aged set. Psychology professionals interested in the elderly brain as well as dementia issues should also read Ellen Peters’ (Ohio State University) recent inquiries into how happiness in older adults assists in memory creation and retention.

Schizophrenia’s origin story might finally prove a little less mysterious, thanks to Frederick C. Nucifora Jr. and his team at Johns Hopkins University. A rare mutation in Neuronal PAS domain protein 3 (NPAS3) appears more frequently in patients diagnosed with the disorder, as well as bipolar disorder; it might also impact the ultimate effectiveness of antipsychotic drugs. In its natural state, the gene “talks” to the hippocampus, relaying information about how to build and operate healthy, fully-functioning nerves and nerve bundles. Researchers within the psychological community already suspected the cradle of schizophrenia lay in the hippocampus, so Nucifora and company’s discovery lends even more evidence to this theory. To them, excavating the possible genetic and/or molecular roots of schizophrenia means inching closer to more effective, sustainable treatment options in the future – but they also warn about pre-emptively celebrating their possibly game-changing find. A mutation in NPAS3 segregates with mental illness in a small family, published in the January 2013 issue of Molecular Psychiatry, only narrowed its focus to a mother and her two children diagnosed with schizophrenia; however, petri dish tests suggested the connection might prove much, much broader than that. It is also entirely possible that other genetic mutations, not just the one occurring in NPAS3, stand at fault alongside it. Nucifora and others obviously require deeper investigation to uncover the true roots of the serious disorder and its related diagnoses. For now, though, more proof that things might start at the genetic level (although environment can influence schizophrenia as well) means more steps towards definitive solutions for keeping it at bay.

Savvy psychology students need to remain attuned to the latest industry research, regardless of whether or not it comes from a professor. But they definitely need to pay attention to what’s happening on their own campuses as well as campuses elsewhere. Groundbreaking studies hail from colleges across the country – exploring them leads to more and more findings that could very well change the science forever. It may even provide students with inspiration for conducting influential research of their own.