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Panelists discuss studies on mental health and stress during UNC Research Week

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Screenshot from the Nov. 8 panel covering the impact of pandemic stress on mental health, and how current research at UNC is driving innovations in neuroscience that lead to new treatments and better outcome.

As a part of the University Research Week series, the UNC School of Medicine hosted a panel discussion with researchers studying stress and treatments for mental health conditions.

The panel on Monday, titled "Stress and our Mental Health: Research Innovation that Leads to Improved Treatment & Outcomes," featured Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chairperson of the UNC Department of Psychiatry, Crystal Schiller, co-director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program, and Jose Rodriguez-Romaguera, co-director of the Carolina Stress Initiative.

Each of them has been researching solutions to address mental health through researching treatment techniques for different demographics of people.

Meltzer-Brody said the pandemic has markedly worsened the overall mental health of people in the United States.

“This is all going to require a massive and new effort,” she said. “And will take all of us working together for new funding and resources and new ideas.”

Meltzer-Brody’s research centers around the development of a new drug to treat postpartum depression — behavioral changes that can happen in some women after giving birth. She and her team were approached to be part of an open study to research the impacts of the neuroactive steroid Allopregnanolone on postpartum depression. 

“The timeline was rapid, it was exciting,” Meltzer-Brody said. "This is sort of the first patients done and the papers published, leading to FDA approval in March of 2019. And interestingly, within two weeks of March of 2019, it was the second drug, right after intranasal ketamine, to be approved."

Meltzer-Brody also helped develop an app, Mom Genes, to bring science to anyone with a smartphone. This app has garnered data samples that will be used for a genetic study on postpartum depression, she said.

Rodriguez-Romaguera discussed the neuroscience research he's done to highlight how stress impacts the nervous system. He studies how neurons encode anxiety and stress-related behavior by analyzing the brain activity of mice in anxiety-inducing situations.

“We can use mouse models to really probe into the brain and really understand basic circuitry,” Rodriguez-Romaguera said.

In these situations, the mice were exposed to fox odor and an anxiety-inducing environment called an elevated plus-maze. Rodriguez-Romaguera said the purpose of this research is to apply the neuron circuitry findings from his mice studies to the human brain.

“So perhaps pharmacological actions that target the specific group of neurons may help reduce hyperarousal in patients suffering from anxiety disorders,” he said.

The last speaker of the event, Schiller presented her research into behavioral action therapy for people with depression.

While stress impacts all of the biological systems, Schiller said chronic stress in particular leads to exhaustion, inflammation, depression and anxiety.

“So what we’ve been looking at in my lab is how depression, in particular, and anxiety as well can exert impact on the brain, and how we can see that in real-time using functional MRI,” Schiller said.

Schiller said when the reward circuitry she tested in her study becomes dysfunctional, it can lead to disorders like depression. However, when the circuitry is reactivated, it can help alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. 

“The whole point of this behavioral activation treatment is to increase motivation,” Schiller said. “And the interesting thing to me, as a psychologist, is that it works just as well as antidepressant medication, even for severe depression.”

Meltzer-Brody and Schiller said they are currently working on a study to increase psychological treatments for perinatal populations.

“This study aims to improve access to mental health care for pregnant women and new mothers,” Schiller said. "I am excited to report that we are on track with all of our recruitment goals, we have enrolled over 600 women today, and over 400 have already completed treatment with us."

To conclude the conference, Meltzer-Brody said additional approaches to the mental health crisis will be discussed on Nov. 15 at UNC's Mental Health Summit. 

“It’s really important we come together as a community to educate, engage and foster discussion," Meltzer-Brody said. "This is for faculty, staff and students."

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