In April, Amy F.T. Arnsten, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and psychology, was one of 11 scientists to receive a Distinguished Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) for her research on the genetic basis of schizophrenia. According to NARSAD, the award was established “to support highly significant research by established scientists . . . who are on the cusp of a breakthrough, or who are poised to test an innovative new idea that has the potential to make a significant advance in a given area of research.”

Arnsten’s research group has made important contributions to understanding the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is key for abstract thought and goal-directed behavior, and is weakened in mental illnesses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Research in the Arnsten lab has revealed many of the chemical influences at work in the prefrontal cortex, which has led to new treatments for ADHD (guanfacine) and PTSD (prazosin).

Recently, Arnsten has expanded on the insights gained in her research to explore whether a loss of function in the gene Disrupted-in-Schizophrenia 1, or DISC1, in the prefrontal cortex leads to a collapse of neural networks and loss of dendritic spines—protrusions on nerve cells that play a key role in the transmission of signals from cell to cell—and ultimately to the cognitive dysfunction that is characteristic of schizophrenia. This research is conducted in collaboration with Yale experts, including Arthur A. Simen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry; Nenad Sestan, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology; Alvaro Duque, Ph.D., and Min Wang, Ph.D., both associate research scientists in neurobiology; and Constantinos Paspalas, Ph.D., of the University of Crete.

The highly competitive Distinguished Investigator Award, which is given to investigators of brain and psychiatric disorders who have established themselves as leaders in their fields, includes a one-year grant of $100,000.

“Dr. Arnsten exemplifies the kind of individual we try to single out for the Distinguished Investigator Award—an outstanding scientist, representing the very best in the field, with an important body of work behind her and currently pursuing innovative and promising research,” says Geoff Birkett, president and CEO of NARSAD. Jack Barchas, M.D., chair and Barklie McKee Henry Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a 1961 graduate of Yale School of Medicine, chaired the committee that selected the winning proposals. “The work of Dr. Arnsten is extremely impressive,” Barchas says, “and, like that of our other 10 Distinguished Investigator awardees, has very real potential to produce insights that will lead to new approaches to treatment for serious mental illness.”

In addition to Arnsten’s award, two medical school scientists in the Department of Psychiatry were also honored by NARSAD with Young Investigator Awards, created to help the most promising scientists who are now entering research . . . to generate pilot data necessary for larger grants.” The awards carry grants of $60,000 each distributed over two years.

Savita G. Bhakta, D.P.M., a postdoctoral associate who does research at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven, Conn., plans to gain a better understanding of the neurochemistry of schizophrenia by studying how cannabinoids (chemical compounds found in marijuana) induce schizophrenia-like behavioral and cognitive effects in healthy people and exacerbate symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. Fei Wang, Ph.D., associate research scientist, will use multimodal magnetic resonance imaging technology to study adolescents with bipolar disorder to identify abnormalities in brain circuitry serving the emotional processing that are implicated in the illness.

The Long Island, N.Y.-based NARSAD is the world’s largest donor-supported organization supporting research on brain and behavior disorders. Since 1987, NARSAD has awarded more than $230 million to nearly 2,700 scientists.