Donors Fuel Research Into Depression, World’s Leading Cause of Disability

January 8, 2016

For much of the last century, depression has been viewed largely as a single disease; however, it is an extraordinarily heterogeneous condition. Consequently, predicting which healthy people will develop depression is challenging. Given that approximately half of patients do not respond to current options for care, finding the right treatment is equally difficult. Clearly, further study is needed.

McLean’s Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research (CDASR), under the leadership of Director Diego A. Pizzagalli, PhD, is pioneering some of the most exciting and groundbreaking research in the field of depression.

“Much of our research is centered on understanding what is causing patients’ depression and related disorders like anxiety—from psychological, environmental, and neurobiological perspectives,” explains Pizzagalli. “We are looking at what sorts of risk factors—from life events to brain biology—make people more vulnerable. When we understand these factors, we can develop more targeted treatments, both pharmacological [medications] and psychological.”

Depression and anxiety run in donor Blair MacInnes’s family. For that reason, she has become a supporter of Pizzagalli’s research. “Some families have cancer, others have diabetes, ours has struggled with depression and anxiety for several generations,” she says. “Through research, we may be able to stop this cycle, and if anyone can have a breakthrough, it will be McLean.”

Drs. Diego Pizzagalli and Randy Auerbach
Diego A. Pizzagalli, PhD with Randy P. Auerbach, PhD, ABPP

MacInnes believes that for too long, people with depression have been blamed for their illness. But more and more, the center’s research is revealing depression’s neurobiological underpinning.

Pizzagalli’s team is using sophisticated imaging to study patients’ brains. Investigators in the four laboratories that comprise the CDASR are focusing on everything from the interplay between early childhood adversity and psychological resilience to the role of brain chemicals in post-traumatic stress disorder to the mechanisms responsible for depressed patients’ tendency to remember negative, rather than positive experiences. An astonishing 30 separate studies are currently underway—including those which involve young children at increased risk for depression and anxiety up to elderly individuals with geriatric depression.

Philanthropy from people like MacInnes is a “game changer,” according to Pizzagalli, as it enables the center to attract promising young investigators, test research hypotheses that might be too daring for federal support, and gather pilot data that are essential for pursuing government funding. A number of donors support the CDASR, including John and Charlene Cassidy, the Tommy Fuss Fund, the George F. Jewett Foundation East, Carroll and Bob Pierce, and the William Rosenberg Family Foundation on behalf of Carol Silverstein and Jill Gotlieb.

Probing Early Onset

The CDASR includes investigators like Randy P. Auerbach, PhD, ABPP, whose work primarily focuses on children, adolescents, and young adults. Dr. Auerbach, director of the Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Laboratory and director of clinical research for the Simches Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, is co-leading with Pizzagalli one particularly promising study that explores underlying brain mechanisms that confer vulnerability to major depressive disorder in adolescents. It is a high-stakes investigation, as 75% of depressed adolescents attempt suicide during their lifetime.

The study “makes a lot of sense” to donors RoseMary and Daniel Fuss, who have provided multiple years of support through the Tommy Fuss Fund, a private foundation established in memory of their 17-year-old son who took his own life in 2006. “This work is philosophically in sync with what we believe: research advances our understanding of how the brain functions and the underlying causes of mental illness, leading to improved diagnosis, more effective treatments, and even prevention,” says RoseMary.

Dr. Auerbach explains that adolescence is the peak period of depression onset, and it is associated with a wide range of negative short- and long-term consequences. “I have the privilege of helping young people get back on a healthier developmental trajectory, and by consequence, ensuring that they can focus on fulfilling their life goals,” he says.

The Power of Fellowships

Young talent often is the lifeblood of research, and donor support is key to fostering their participation. In a dynamic setting like the CDASR, fellows play a key role in driving innovative clinical research.

Jeremy Stewart, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow under Dr. Auerbach’s supervision, is helping the team identify risk factors that facilitate the transition from thinking about suicide to attempting suicide “Such an understanding would, ultimately, lead to early identification of and more effective treatment for high-risk youth,” says Auerbach.

Fellowships like Stewart’s are critical in today’s challenging funding climate, according to Auerbach. “One of the largest obstacles we face in research is keeping talented junior investigators in the field of science,” he says. “These types of fellowships enable junior researchers to gain traction on a research question, then develop and refine their ideas to eventually pursue federal funding.”

Donors Lee and Stuart Rolfe say they decided to support this fellowship because the mental health struggles of adolescents hit close to home. “Our family has developed a very positive relationship with McLean, and we feel extraordinarily blessed,” says Stuart. “Supporting this fellowship is our way of giving back.”

Dr. Stewart was previously supported by the Pope-Hintz fellowship, established by National Council members Ed and Helen Hintz.

For Pizzagalli and Auerbach, such partnerships with donors make all the difference. For the CDASR, that means supporting a multifaceted team and the broad range of studies that are necessary to truly make headway in understanding the world’s leading cause of disability.

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