Discovering how infections during pregnancy, such as COVID-19 and influenza, can lead to psychiatric illness and developmental disorders in offspring years later, and how to detect, prevent or treat these disorders, is the subject of a $15.7 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to the Conte Center at the University of California, Davis.
The UC Davis Conte Center, organized through the Center for Neuroscience, was originally established with an NIH grant in 2016. This grant renews the center’s funding for another five years.
“UC Davis is in the upper echelon of translational mental health research,” said co-principal investigator Cameron Carter, C. Bryan Cameron Presidential Chair in the Center for Neuroscience and distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology in the School of Medicine. “The establishment of a UC Davis Conte Center in 2016 was an incredible accomplishment, and to renew it in 2021 is an even bigger accomplishment.”
Building on promising findings from the initial grant, the renewed funding will allow investigators to discover biomarkers for at-risk pregnancies and new treatments to prevent the detrimental effects of maternal infection on brain development in offspring.
“The team at the UC Davis Conte Center is helping us understand the origins of significant mental health disorders,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “And their research will have far-reaching impacts and provide foundational understandings for how we approach mental health for current and future generations.”
Psychiatric illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders, including schizophrenia, affect 15-20 percent of people worldwide, yet current treatments are at best only partially effective.
“The rates of schizophrenia and autism have dramatically increased following pandemics in the past, and we are deeply concerned about a similar impending wave of psychiatric illness following the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said co-principal investigator Kimberley McAllister, director of the Center for Neuroscience and a professor in the Department of Neurology, School of Medicine; and Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences. “Newly funded projects in our center will reveal approaches to mitigate disease in offspring and even to prevent it in future pregnancies.”
Origin of mental illness
When an expectant mother is exposed to a pathogen, such as a virus or bacterial infection, her body’s immune response can in some cases trigger neurodevelopmental changes in her offspring. The initial Conte Center grant enabled an interdisciplinary team of researchers to discover that this immune response can result in offspring with changes in brain development and behavior that show up surprisingly early after birth, and that are similar in species as disparate as mice and monkeys.
The changes in brain development and behavior seen in animal models are comparable to changes seen in human neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and autism.
Most pregnancies, however, are resilient to these risks. The question is how to determine which pregnancies are at risk, and why.
“Because many of these diseases start very early in development, often prenatally, we are especially interested in understanding how the immune response of the mother during pregnancy alters brain health in her offspring,” McAllister said.
The future of mental health
Once these mechanisms are understood, scientists may be able to create novel therapies, treatments and interventions optimized for the developmental age and sex of at-risk offspring following maternal infection, as well as approaches to prevent the effects during at-risk pregnancies.
The purpose of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Silvio O. Conte Centers program is to support interdisciplinary teams of researchers addressing high-risk, high-impact questions that will advance our understanding of mental disorders and their treatments. The Conte Center award recognizes the strength of interdisciplinary research at UC Davis, and its researchers together represent a diverse coalition of experts from multiple departments and centers across UC Davis, including the Center for Neuroscience, MIND Institute, Center for Mind and Brain, California National Primate Research Center, College of Biological Sciences, School of Medicine, College of Letters and Science, and College of Engineering.
“The Conte Center’s NIMH grant renewal is a testament to the groundbreaking, interdisciplinary research that UC Davis School of Medicine and our main campus partners are conducting,” said Allison Brashear, dean of the School of Medicine. “It is truly impressive to see how UC Davis is bringing together its world-class leaders in neurology, psychiatry, behavioral health and biological sciences, among others, to improve the health of current and future generations.”