Physician-Scientist Daniel Dickstein, MD, FAAP, Brings Child Psychiatry Expertise to McLean

July 12, 2021

Renowned physician-scientist Daniel P. Dickstein, MD, FAAP, has come to McLean Hospital to further his groundbreaking research on the biology of childhood psychiatric disorders—and to help improve mental health care for children, teens, and young adults.

Dickstein is uniquely trained and board-certified in pediatrics, adult psychiatry, and child/adolescent psychiatry. His broad expertise and experience as a pediatrician and psychiatrist are invaluable for a clinician-researcher who works closely with children and their families daily.

“It is a lot of fun to meet kids in our studies,” said Dickstein, “some who have psychiatric challenges and some who don’t—both to learn from them, and also to have a chance to show them their brain pictures after their MRI scans.”

Investigating the Brain and Behavior of Kids

He leads the PediMIND (pediatric mood, imaging, and neurodevelopment) Program at McLean. Using advanced technology, this program focuses on identifying the brain and behavior mechanisms associated with child psychiatric disorders and their impacts, including bipolar disorder, irritability, suicide, and non-suicidal self-injury. PediMIND seeks to improve how these problems are diagnosed, treated, and prevented.

“I’m so excited to move my PediMIND Program to McLean Hospital,” said Dickstein. “McLean is a world leader in partnering cutting-edge research with great clinical care.”

Dickstein uses a “brain-and-behavior-first approach.” Instead of starting with a diagnosis, he chooses to “let the biology speak for itself.”

Adult hugging and reading to two children

Dickstein and the PediMIND Program are investigating childhood mental health

Working with children and families, his studies involve a combination of specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, computer games that test emotion and thinking, and detailed assessments. The assessments are done through questionnaires, interviews, and smartphone apps.

The goal of one of his current studies is to identify the brain/behavior mechanism of irritability, which is associated with multiple psychiatric disorders. It is the most common reason children are brought in for emergency or outpatient mental health evaluation. Participants in this study are children and teens ages 10-17.

Dickstein is also actively engaged in research into non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) in children, including brain and behavior alterations and the risk for suicidal behavior. The goal of this work is to understand why children engage in NSSI, including cutting, and what brain/behavior mechanisms can predict which children engaged in NSSI will ultimately try to commit suicide. Participants in this study are ages 8-16.

“Suicide is the second leading cause of death, starting at age 10 and going to age 33, despite our best clinical care,” said Dickstein. “The PediMIND Program, along with collaborators nationwide, are trying to change that—and how we approach other child psychiatric disorders—by advancing what we know about the brain and behavior mechanisms that cause these problems.”

Making a Difference in Youth Mental Health

The generosity and enthusiasm of the patients and families who participate in these PediMIND studies are key drivers of Dickstein’s commitment. He said that his work is both rewarding and humbling.

“We really enjoy working with kids and their parents who realize that working together, we can make a powerful difference in how we diagnose and treat child and adolescent mental health problems—like suicide, self-cutting, and bipolar disorder,” Dickstein explained.

Dickstein and his staff are committed to continuing their important work while helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. They have adjusted procedures to ensure that kids and families remain safe while participating in studies. This includes limiting person-to-person contact by using videoconferencing for consents and interviews. For visits that cannot be remote—such as MRI scans—strict personal protective equipment, physical distancing, and hygiene protocols are followed.

Visit the PediMIND website to learn how your family can help improve our understanding of the brain changes associated with mental illness in youth.

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