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The Akira Sawa Laboratory

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Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D.

The research in our laboratory is directed towards understanding the pathogenesis of major mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia and mood disorders, at the molecular level. Furthermore, we anticipate our efforts may uncover fundamental mechanisms that mediate cognition, emotion, and thought. Taking advantage of our roles in both basic and clinical departments, our interdisciplinary research ranges from molecular/cellular biology and animal models to clinical studies using patient subjects.

In a bottom-up approach, we focus on concrete molecular targets, such as disease risk gene products and/or key cellular mediators. We extensively look for such mediators from the knowledge of clinical epidemiology in collaboration with scholars in School of Public Health. We test how these molecular targets are functionally related to each other within cells and neuronal networks of animal models. In addition, we investigate how the targets contribute to disease phenotypes during development, especially in conjunction with adolescent brain maturation. Recently, we are concentrating on neuronal-glial functional interactions.

In a top-down approach, we study human subjects, including patients with major mental illness, through multifaceted approaches, including clinical assessments of psychiatry and psychology, brain imaging (MRI, MRS, and PET), and clinico-electrophysiological means (ERP, EEG, and TMS). In parallel, we conduct molecular dissection of biospecimens from these same sets of subjects. These biospecimens include olfactory neurons obtained from nasal biopsies, induced pluripotent stem cells and induced neurons, and other peripheral cells.

Finally, there are two exploratory studies in our lab. One of them is to address questions on schizophrenia and global health. The other is a neurophilosophical study on “self”, based on our hypothesis that schizophrenia is a condition of self disturbance.

Selected Projects:
  • Studying how genetic and environmental factors interact during adolescent brain maturation and underlie adult behaviors
  • Building and dissecting human cell models to study mental illness, which include olfactory neurons, induced pluripotent stem cells and induced neurons, and other peripheral cells.
  • Studying human subjects with mental illness in multifaceted clinical approaches, including neuropsychology, clinical physiology, brain imaging, and human stem cell biology
  • Exploring key mediators for major mental illness in conjunction with clinical epidemiology: schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are systemic disorders.
  • Efforts on global health and mental health, in particular schizophrenia.
  • Pilot study on “self”: schizophrenia is a condition of self disturbance.

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