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TRANSLATIONS: Plan of Attack

News from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Dr. Christopher Ross
Dr. Christopher Ross


Schizophrenia affects about one in 100 in this country; Huntington’s disease touches about one in 10,000. But understanding the “smaller” disorder could one day help overthrow the “larger,” says Christopher Ross, M.D., Ph.D., “because it’s such a good model. With HD, we’ve spent 10 years understanding the mutant gene and the protein it makes. We have mouse and cell models. Now we’re truly understanding the disease—where to look in the brain and what to look for—and how to try to stop it.”

Ross, a neuroscientist and world expert on HD, leads Psychiatry’s neurobiology front against psychiatric illness: seven laboratories bent on understanding brain disease biology. The plan he’s spread out involves first clarifying HD and related diseases, then expanding into Parkinson’s disease—which, like HD, is clouded by psychiatric illness. Lessons learned from traditional “neurodegenerative” diseases should carry over to “neuropsychiatric” ones: schizophrenia, bipolar disease, obsessive compulsive disorder and others.

Sarah Reading’s work (left) beautifully illustrates that sort of carryover, Ross says. “She’s applying the most advanced imaging techniques to psychiatric disorders in a truly novel way. A part of the brain might look normal, structurally, by traditional scans. But Sarah’s use of fMRI and DTI shows that connections between those areas are also affected.” So far, Reading’s discovered that key brain connections between the cortex and the caudate nucleus aren’t right in HD patients.

As for schizophrenia? “Her whole-brain view of brain misfunction is especially relevant there,” Ross says, “because we think it’s more global brain functioning rather than loss of particular brain structures that’s the problem.” But the disease is so complicated. “If we can integrate the imaging with our genetic and our cellular findings, then we’ll know schizophrenia intimately enough, we think, to turn it around.”

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