Psychiatric disorders manifest affective symptoms and physiological biomarkers. We study these biomarkers and their applications in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. In particular, our research focus is on anxiety and stress-related disorders.
How does the Acoustic Startle Response (ASR) and its associated blink response correlate with the severity of PTSD? How does a mindfulness-based intervention influence the affective and physiologic symptoms of first responders with PTSD? How does self-quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic affect the symptomatology of psychiatric in-patients?
We use a wide range of novel technology and various platforms in clinical research to explore these questions. Work in the McCann Lab ranges wide in scope, from mechanistic questions regarding brain-regional blood flow to physiological analytics of heart rate variability and blink response across different populations. Much of our ongoing work focuses on diagnosis and treatments of PTSD with the aim of incorporating idiopathic Parkinson’s disease and TBI-Induced Parkinson’s (Dementia Pugilistica) as well.
We have developed technology to characterize parameters of the blink reflex that results from the acoustic startle response. The acoustic startle response (ASR) is a reflex of defensive muscular activity elicited by acoustic stimuli, characterized in humans by a whole-body startle reflex, and blink reflex. In humans, the blink reflex (BR) can be characterized by its velocity, amplitude, latency, habituation, and prepulse inhibition; these traits may differ across populations. Accordingly, ASR and its consequent BR have potential as surrogate biomarkers for neurological and psychiatric disorders. Our current research seeks to characterize this blink response in populations of first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through a novel mobile application, the Mobile Acoustic Startle Reflex-monitoring System (MARS). Preliminary findings indicate promising differences between the blink characteristics of healthy and PTSD populations—thus holding implications for the diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment of PTSD.
We are studying the effects of a novel 8-week mindfulness-based intervention (TCMMMRT) on alleviating PTSD and associated symptomology. TCMMMRT stands for Tai Chi Moving Mindfulness Meditation and Resilience Training. TCMMMRT was developed by Sifu Jones, a retired law enforcement officer and tai chi expert, and is a form of simplified tai chi that incorporates mindfulness meditation, with a focus on awareness of physical movements. This intervention is being studied in hopes of reducing PTSD severity in first responders by counteracting the functional changes identified in the brains of patients with PTSD. In particular, while PTSD symptoms are associated with decreased activation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and increased amygdala activity, mindfulness meditation is associated with increased PFC activation and decreased amygdala activation.
We have developed a set of stimulus methods to activate the hippocampus for human fMRI research. By using satellite sounds from previous startle models, we are trying to investigate the relationship between brain-regional blood flow and sounds in psychiatric and brain injury patients. We aim to establish standard fMRI brain maps in control and diverse patient populations suffering from idiopathic Parkinson’s disease and Dementia pugilistica. Our lab will compare signal pathway data detected with the fMRI and pair blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signals with physiologic measures of blink reflex (BR), pupil dilation, skin conductivity response, and variations of prepulse inhibition. Our hopes for this experiment are to identify potential evidence of surrogate sound response networks that can detect disease in the brain.
Una D. McCann (MD): Read profile
Cody Weston (MD, PhD): I received my undergraduate training in Physiology and Psychology at the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University in 2008, then trained at the Penn State College of Medicine’s MSTP, receiving and MD and a PhD in Neuroscience in 2017. During this process I took a year off for additional postdoctoral training in medical informatics at Geisinger. I completed a residency in psychiatry and fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital and have since taken a position as an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, with a clinical focus on emergency psychiatric care. My research interests include preventative psychiatry and nonpharmacologic adjunct interventions, and in the use of physiologic data to guide health recommendations. My outside interests include tai chi, writing, and lay health education, including the production of the Podcast Against Disease.
One particularly important scientific question to me is: How does mental illness interact with collective beliefs and attitudes (something I define as “sociological illness”)? How do concepts like despair, alienation, and discrimination affect patient populations and how can we look beyond the one-on-one clinical relationship to effect meaningful change?
Christopher Patrick Carroll (MD): Dr. Carroll is an internationally recognized expert in the multidisciplinary management of complex and high-utilizing patients with sickle cell disease (SCD). After completing his graduate medical training at Washington University in St. Louis, he completed residency in the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Thereafter he was a fellow in the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, studying the behavioral pharmacology of opioids. Upon leaving the fellowship, he joined faculty as an associate medical director of Addiction Treatment Services, a leading addiction treatment center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. In 2007, he assumed his current role in the Sickle Cell Center for Adults, combining his interests in chronic pain, opioid pharmacology, and the care of complex patients. He attends in the Department of Psychiatry’s Pain Treatment Program, an intensive multidisciplinary treatment program for patients with refractory chronic pain or abnormal illness behavior. He has published a number of peer-reviewed papers on SCD pain and treatment utilization, in addition to his earlier work in behavioral pharmacology and addiction treatment. Along with the multidisciplinary team of the Johns Hopkins Sickle Cell Center for Adults, he has been consulted regionally and internationally regarding management of chronic pain, psychiatric illness, and treatment utilization in SCD. Dr. Carroll serves as a consultant on qualitative and quantitative methods as well as multimodal statistical analysis.
Gowen (MSc): I am a neuroscientist and researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry. Prior to working at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, I was a United States (US) Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) technical for the US Navy. I was directly responsible for the amelioration of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED)s as well as leading a team of high-performance individuals to perform critical missions of humanitarian and conflict resolution. After my military career, I have dedicated 5+ years of research and management skillsets developing psychophysiological measurement strategies and instrument/prototypes. I led the development of the Mobile Acoustic-startle Reflex monitoring System (MARS) application where smart-phone-based camera measurements may record potential surrogate biomarkers of neurosystem tone. After publishing in Sensors under the title “EMG-Free Monitorization of the Acoustic Startle Reflex with a Mobile Phone: Implications of Sound Parameters with Posture Related Responses” , I moved my research to Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and began working with Professor Dr. Una McCann  and Associate Professor Dr. Yusuf Cakmak of the University of Otago . My Master’s thesis titled, “Mobile Acoustic startle Reflex-monitoring System (MARS), a pilot study,” encompassed the research on PTSD in a firefighter population at the International Association of Fire Fighters Center of Excellence (IAFF COE) at the in-patient rehabilitation center in Upper Marlboro, MD . While the study is still ongoing, comparative analyses have shown encouraging dissimilarities between health and PTSD. Currently, I am awaiting final processing towards my completion of the Doctorate in Engineering (DEng) program at the Whiting School of Engineering at JHU .
Pritha Saha (BS): I graduated from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) with a BS in Neuroscience, and currently am pursuing my Master of Health Science in Mental Health at the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health. How can we get closer to an objective definition of what is mental illness? My primary research interest is to break outdated conceptions of mental illness by identifying the common pathophysiology connecting mental illness to neurological disorders and biomarkers. When I'm not doing research, I teach a form of Indian classical dance called Kathak and you might catch me performing in the DMV area!
Berk Kasimcan (BS candidate): Hey there! I'm Berk Kasimcan, a dedicated bioengineering student at George Mason University, where I'm pursuing both my undergraduate and master's degrees. As a proud member of the Honors College, I'm committed to my academics and research, always ready to take on new challenges. When I'm not in the lab or at school, you can find me mentoring high school students in research and publication through the MASON HSMP program or participating in the student-faculty program at Mason, helping upperclassmen publish their first research papers. Recently, I had the incredible experience of working as a Research Assistant at the University of Otago's Department of Anatomy in New Zealand. There, I collaborated with Ph.D. students and professors on a project studying facial muscle displacement in Parkinson's disease patients due to external ear devices. Keep an eye out for our publication in Spring 2023! On the fun side of things, I'm an avid photographer with a soft spot for vintage snaps. I also have a need for speed and adventure, whether it's skydiving, snowboarding, or building my own model rockets and RC cars. And let's not forget about my love for vintage cars and basketball – truly, there's never a dull moment!
Vereena Metry (BS candidate): Hello! My name is Vereena Metry and I am a senior double major in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Psychology at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to the research I do here, I am passionate about many other aspects of healthcare and the effects of trauma. Currently, I am the president of Hopkins Students Against Homelessness where we work to reduce the social stigma around homelessness and volunteer locally with those who experience homelessness and the trauma surrounding it. In addition to this, I am a Crisis Counselor for the Crisis Text Line where people can reach out when they feel they are having a psychological crisis. Lastly, I also volunteer at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospitals with the infants in intensive care and their families. These experiences have allowed me to witness the effects of trauma and its multifaceted effects firsthand. I am curious about how stress and trauma are passed down between generations. I want to do a longitudinal study observing the levels of trauma associated across generations to get a better sense of the prevalence of this issue. I would then do another study looking for DNA biomarkers associated with high levels of stress among this population, accounting for epigenetic modifications associated with trauma. With the results of these studies, I would have a better sense of the problem, and be able to then work on treatments.
Faith Streeter (BA candidate): I am in my senior year at Johns Hopkins University, working toward my B.A. in Public Health Studies. My research focus is on the intersectionality of mental health, in other words how mental health concerns are often accompanied by marginalized social identities regarding race, gender, sexuality, and class which contribute to one's ability to access effective care. Outside of my work with the McCann lab, I volunteer with the Hopkins Emergency Response Organization, the EMS unit for the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. I also enjoy reading, cooking, and getting out in nature as much as possible.
Kali Gilbreath (BA candidate): I am a rising senior at JHU currently pursuing my BA in Psychology and Spanish with a minor in Art History. I’m interested in researching the efficacy and development of psycho-behavioral interventions to treat PTSD and other trauma related disorders. I believe this work is crucial to treating these complex disorders and overcoming the stigma associated with severe mental illness. In my spare time, I enjoy early morning runs, oil painting, and taking my dog Kala on hikes whenever I can!
My scientific question of interest is how can stigma surrounding mental illness perpetuate the severity and symptoms of PTSD in first responders?
Nathan Jin (BS candidate): Hello! My name is Nathan Jin, and I am a sophomore double majoring in Neuroscience and Economics at Johns Hopkins University. I’m interested in developing natural treatments/cures for patients with mental illness, especially those who are in emergency services. I’m also on the Hopkins swim team! Outside of being a student-athlete, I enjoy playing the guitar, running with my dog Sunny, and watching the sunrise/sunset.
Jessica Corey (LCPC, NCC; Clinical Director at IAFF Center of Excellence): Jessica Corey has been actively licensed in Maryland for the past 15 years. She has worked with a wide range of populations, including families and individuals 4 years and older. For the past three years she had been the acting Clinical Director at the IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery, working directly with the firefighting community as a therapist for the past four years. Jessica currently provides individual and family telehealth services through her private practice Sunrise Mountain Wellness and couples therapy through Well Marriage Center in Frederick MD. Her training includes Cognitive Processing Therapy for individuals and groups, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and somatic interventions to manage PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Abby Morris (MD; Medical Director at IAFF Center of Excellence): Dr. Abby Morris received degrees from Cornell University and Georgetown School of Medicine, and completed her residency training at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She is double board certified in psychiatry/neurology and Addiction medicine. She has been a physician for 20 years and has been working as a medical director for the last 15 years. She has worked in diverse medical settings including as the Medical Director for a CMHC, as the Medical Director for an Assertive Community Treatment program, and as the medical director of a 24-bed psychiatric unit in a Johns Hopkins Hospital in suburban Maryland. She is currently the Medical Director of the IAFF Center of Excellence, a stand-alone mental health treatment facility for first responders with PTSD, addiction, or other behavioral health challenges. She has been awarded many local and regional honors for her academics and work in her field and is considered an international expert in first responder mental health and trauma. Dr. Morris has been on multiple news programs, panels, and conference forums and has been invited to teach in a variety of settings around the country and internationally. In addition, she serves as the medical consultant for the SWAT/CIT team in Montgomery County, Maryland and was named the Volunteer of the Year by the police in that county in 2017. However, Dr. Morris is most proud to be the mother of two incredible young men.
Sifu Dan Jones (BS; TCMMMRT Specialist and Advisor): Dan Jones is a retired law enforcement officer and security professional with over thirty-eight years of experience. He currently owns and operates a training and education business that specializes in Moving Mindfulness Meditation and Resilience Training for First Responders, veterans and people employed in high stress and high-risk professions. He also teaches classes and workshops on Moving Mindfulness Meditation for health and wellness. As a Master Tai Chi Chuan and Internal Gongfu Instructor he has over fifty years of experience as a martial arts practitioner. His experience includes over forty years Tai Chi Chuan and Won Chuen Temple Boxing, twelve years combined experience in Japanese Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Wing Chun Gongfu, and Shorin Ryu Karate. Sifu Jones has developed numerous Tai Chi forms and programs including Tai Chi Moving Mindfulness Meditation and Resilience Training (TCMMMRT). He is currently our Tai Chi Research Consultant. Working with our team, he recently completed a nine-month, online study teaching TCMMMRT to firefighters with PTSD.
Williams MS, Ziegelstein RC, McCann UD, Gould NF, Ashvetiya T, Vaidya D. “Platelet Serotonin Signaling in Patients With Cardiovascular Disease and Comorbid Depression.” Psychosom Med. 2019 May;81(4):352-362
Garg A, Kapoor S, Goel M, Chopra S, Chopra M, Kapoor A, McCann UD, Behera C. “Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Abstinent MDMA Users: A Review.” Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2015;8(1):15-25
Mueller M, Yuan J, McCann UD, Hatzidimitriou G, Ricaurte GA. “Single oral doses of (±) 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine ('Ecstasy') produce lasting serotonergic deficits in non-human primates: relationship to plasma drug and metabolite concentrations.” Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2013 May;16(4):791-801
Mueller M, Maldonado-Adrian C, Yuan J, McCann UD, Ricaurte GA. “Studies of (±) 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) metabolism and disposition in rats and mice: relationship to neuroprotection and neurotoxicity profile.” J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2013 Feb;344(2):479-88
Rao V, Mielke M, Xu X, Smith GS, McCann UD, Bergey A, Doshi V, Pham DL, Yousem D, Mori S. “Diffusion tensor imaging atlas-based analyses in major depression after mild traumatic brain injury.” J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2012 Summer;24(3):309-15
Weston C, Glantz MJ, Connor JR: Detection of cancer cells in the cerebrospinal fluid: current methods and future directions. Fluids Barriers CNS 8: 14. Fluids and Barriers of the CNS 03/2011; 8(1):14. PMID: 21371327
Weston C, Connor J: Evidence for the Influence of the Iron Regulatory MHC Class I Molecule HFE on Tumor Progression in Experimental Models and Clinical Populations. Translational Oncogenomics 12/2014; 6:1-12. PMID: 25520556
Weston C, Hund W, Nixon A, Neely E, Webb B, Alkhateeb A, Connor JR: Host H67D Genotype Affects Tumor Growth in Mouse Melanoma. Journal of Cancer Science and Therapy 01/2015; 07(07).
Weston C, Klobusicky J, Weston J, Connor J, Toms SA, Marko NF. Aberrations in the Iron Regulatory Gene Signature Are Associated with Decreased Survival in Diffuse Infiltrating Gliomas. PLoS ONE 11/2016; 11(11): e0166593. PMID: 27898674
Ingram WM, Weston C, Lu WD, Hodge C, Poler SM, Nahi, F, Larson S, Factors affecting electroconvulsive therapy ictal outcomes: duration and postictal suppression, AMIA Jt Summits Transl Sci Proc (2019), PMID: 31259023
Gowen CL, Khwaounjoo P, Cakmak YO. EMG-Free Monitorization of the Acoustic Startle Reflex with a Mobile Phone: Implications of Sound Parameters with Posture Related Responses. Sensors. 2020; 20(21):5996. https://doi.org/10.3390/s20215996
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A mental illness triggered by a traumatic event. It is characterized by intrusive thoughts, avoidance, negative changes in affect, and changes in arousal/reactivity.
Acoustic startle response (ASR): A physiologic response elicited by specific sounds.
Blink reflex (BR): An involuntary blinking that can be induced by the acoustic startle response.
Biomarkers: A biological/physiological indicator that characterizes illness.
Mobile Acoustic Startle Reflex-monitoring System (MARS): Our novel mobile application that plays specific sounds to elicit the acoustic startle response (ASR) as well as record and analyze the corresponding blink reflex (BR).
Tai Chi Moving Mindfulness Meditation and Resilience Training (TCMMMRT): A novel intervention of simplified tai chi, developed by Sifu Jones, that incorporates gross motor movements and mindfulness meditation.