Solving the puzzles of mental illnesses

Young person in sweater sits on the ground and hugs his knees to his chest
Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 3-9) culminates with World Mental Health Day on October 10. Several BIO5 researchers are supporting mental health through their basic science and clinical research efforts.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

One in five Americans experience mental illness each year, and more than half of all lifetime conditions begin by age 14. Common mental illnesses - including anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder - affect more than 110 million in the U.S. 
Since no two diagnoses are alike, personalized treatments are required to both manage and ultimately overcome mental illness. With precise biological details yet to be discovered, there’s a dire need to decipher the causes of and develop treatments for mental illnesses.
Researchers at the UArizona BIO5 Institute are working towards better understanding the cellular and molecular changes that contribute to various mental health conditions, with the goal to more effectively manage these disorders.
Dr. John Allen, distinguished professor of cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, seeks to identify risk factors for depression by assessing changes to brain connectivity and heart regulation. Based on these findings, Allen is developing novel treatments for mood and anxiety disorders including transcranial ultrasound, electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback, and both transcranial direct and alternating current stimulation. In addition to his imaging-focused endeavors, he’s also found that yogic breathing improves stress responses in students
Multiple mental illnesses can present in a single patient – such is the case for eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Dr. Haijiang Cai, assistant professor of neuroscience, aims to better understand how brain circuits underlying these conditions interact or overlap. Recent work has identified specific neurons in the amygdala, a brain region that controls emotion, that also play important roles in appetite. 

Through a variety of imaging, genetic and biological techniques, Cai dissects these brain pathways to determine how feeding and anxiety interact at the cellular level. His work will ultimately provide the basis for developing new drugs to treat eating and emotional disorders. 
"With this research, we’re helping to develop circuit-based therapies with greater specificity, for example, to increase food intake in anorexia patients without making them more depressed or to alleviate emotional distress in mood disorder patients without suppressing their appetite," Cai said.
Associate Director of the Precision Nutrition and Wellness Initiative Dr. Ski Chilton provides solutions to overcome physical and emotional suffering so people can live more fruitful lives. His research examines how genetic and epigenetic variations interact with one’s diet to drive conditions like ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and depression. Chilton’s studies reveal new therapeutic strategies to optimize brain development for different populations around the world.

Chilton, a professor of nutritional sciences, also discusses mental health in his books. His most recent book, “The Rewired Brain,” examines the “unconscious mind” and its negative power over our lives. The author shares how thought patterns induce genetic and epigenetic changes that can alter brain circuitry, providing people with the capacity to rewire their minds and change their lives.

Judith Gordon
Dr. Judith Gordon's "See Me Serene" app was funded by a BIO5 COVID-19 seed grant.

Dr. Judith Gordon, associate dean of research in College of Nursing, used mobile technology to help isolated people reduce stress, depression and anxiety, as well as improve their mood, during the early COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gordon’s “See Me Serene” app, funded by a BIO5 COVID-19 seed grant, features guided imagery to describe various experiences, like camping, sitting at the beach, or playing basketball, to aid in relaxation. She also tested the effectiveness of this multi-sensory technology by surveying mood and monitoring levels of cortisol – an output for stress and inflammation – before and after four weeks of the app usage. 

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.

About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, data and computational science, and basic science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, innovative diagnostics and devices, promising new therapies, and improved food sustainability. Learn more at BIO5.ORG.