Dr. Amelia Gallitano, a physician-scientist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, has received a grant to develop the first diagnostic test for schizophrenia.
The $175,000 grant from the Sidney R. Baer Jr. Foundation funds development of a rapid and easily administered, biologically based test that could determine whether an individual has schizophrenia or a specific subtype of the mental disorder.
"No biological test exists to diagnose a mental illness such as schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder," said Gallitano, a Department of Basic Medical Sciences faculty member. "We've got a huge challenge in trying to find the causes of an illness that is poorly defined, that probably encompasses multiple illnesses that change over time and that is not diagnosable with any test.
"Part of the problem is that psychological illnesses are not caused by genetics alone, but by genetics and environmental factors. We still don't definitely know a cause for a single psychiatric illness."
Gallitano directs a laboratory that investigates a family of genes activated in the brain in response to environmental events. Her research focuses on the pathways of genes activated by environmental stimuli, or the response to this stimuli. Her hope is to come up with therapies that are non-medication related.
"These genes are ideally poised to explain the risk for mental illness," she said. "Dysfunction in these genes could give rise to risk."
As a scientist and physician, Gallitano said her goal is to better understand the biology of mental illness. "By understanding the biology underlying the disorder, we have more opportunities to identify treatments — and maybe even prevent the onset of mental illness," she said.
Earlier this year, Gallitano published a study showing that in a particular gene pathway her laboratory has described, the next gene in the lineup also will play a role in mental illness.
"This gene appears to be playing a key role in mediating the risk for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses," she said.
In the study, Gallitano collaborated with Nicholas Breitborde, who founded the Early Psychosis Intervention Center, or Epicenter, in Tucson. Breitborde studied cognitive remediation therapy, in which an individual exercises cognitive skills using brain-training techniques and computer-based exercises that stimulate the cognitive processes.
"Those stimuli were acting in part through the genes I study," Gallitano said. "This study should allow us to identify people in advance that would do well with this type of therapy, but someone else may need more intensive treatment. Certain types of medication can boost the function of this genetic pathway, which can help us create a more personalized treatment."
Gallitano recently was interviewed for a PBS television special, "Not Broken," about mental illness and young people. The show, including Gallitano's remarks, can be viewed at https://tv.azpm.org/notbroken/.
The Sidney R. Baer Jr. Foundation was established in 1999 to fund mental health initiatives. Baer, having struggled with mental illness, sought to alleviate the suffering of those afflicted with mental illness. Upon his death in 2002, he left the remainder of his estate to the foundation.