ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For years, researchers have used genetics and imaging, separately, to try to understand mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Now, a $15 million grant will help a team of UNM scientists and engineers combine imaging and genetics to learn more about those illnesses and how they relate to each other.
The grant, which is in its second phase, will help the Center for Biomedical Research Excellence, known as COBRE, a component of the Mind Research Network, better understand psychosis and mood disorders.
The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health follows an earlier grant of the same size.
The research is complex, and involves UNM’s psychiatry and engineering departments.
Vince Calhoun, a principal investigator, said the goal is to better understand the relationship between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“The ultimate goal is to help patients,” he said. “It will give us some crucial pieces of information that we don’t have yet.”
The project has two main components: the imaging of brains of patients who suffer from the disorders and the algorithms that will help piece the information together.
Calhoun said the research “will help develop theories of how hallucinations are formed and how we can suppress them and understand more about how it happens.”
For example, advanced imaging allows researchers to see what parts of the brain “light up” when a person is hallucinating.
“Once we learn how it happens, we can find a way to treat it and impact it,” Calhoun said.
The project involves the work of six graduate students.
Lei Wu, a doctoral candidate in computer engineering, is using her expertise in data fusion involving medical imaging.
A Chinese native who moved to the United States to attend UNM in 2006, Wu analyzes the data taken from images of patients’ brains. To be specific, she looks at the images of about 200 patients and searches for patterns to help explain what might trigger a brain to act a certain way. Wu said she enjoys her work because of its real world applications.
“I think we can actually apply the math or the techniques all the way to the medical area, and hopefully we can help the doctors and the psychiatrists to make their work easier,” Wu said.