Laureate Researchers Study Brain Development
When Matthew Reynolds (name changed) was nine years old, he loved playing basketball, riding his bike and hanging out with his friends. He hated Brussels sprouts, making his bed and storms. While his parents understood his dislike of Brussels sprouts and making his bed, they were concerned about his unusually intense fear of storms. Did this mean he was developing an anxiety disorder like his grandfather? Would other mental health problems surface in time?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are common in the United States. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Researchers at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) in Tulsa are currently conducting a study to shed light on these common mental health disorders. They are studying children to see if someone like Matthew, for example, may be at risk for developing anxiety disorder later in life.
Learning About the Brain
LIBR, the first of its kind in Oklahoma, is a one-year-old, clinical neuroscience research institute supported by the W. K. Warren Foundation. The researchers at LIBR are using the latest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to explore the brain.
“Our primary interest,” Dr. Ruben Alvarez, assistant professor at LIBR, says, “is to understand the brain areas involved in depression and anxiety.”
“Our long term goal is to look for bio markers [biological indicators of a condition or disease],” staff scientist Julie Bellgowan adds. “We look at brain systems through the MRI, genetic markers through genetic testing and behavioral markers.”
According to Alvarez, the researchers at LIBR hope their long-term studies will enable early detection, early intervention and prevention in children who are at risk for depression and anxiety. They are also hoping to uncover the secret of resilience—why some children go on to develop further emotional problems when stressed, while others do not.
In order to complete this work, LIBR is looking for study participants ages 8 to 17. Their plan is to compare three pools of individuals:
- Healthy kids with no personal or family history of psychiatric illness.
- At risk kids who have a family history of depression or anxiety.
- Kids who are currently coping with problems of depression or anxiety.
Why Participate in Research?
The most prominent reason people participate in research is to advance medical knowledge and understanding. It is only through the evidence and data gathered through research that advances in medicine are made. Additionally, participation encourages altruism. Participants gain a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves and making a difference in the lives of others. Finally, participation in LIBR increases a child’s knowledge and understanding of science and medicine. “If kids aren’t interested in science before they come in, they are by the time they leave!” Bellgowan says with a smile.
What Participation Entails
Kids willing to participate in the study come to LIBR for several visits. In the first two to three visits, assessments are completed to determine if the child or teen is right for the study and to get a detailed family history.
After the assessments are complete, the child receives a basic MRI brain scan to acclimate them to the MRI machine and make sure their brain is healthy. Following this anatomical scan, they are allowed to see the actual pictures of their brain.
The next step is the functional study where researchers take a peek into the activity of the brain using the MRI scans geared toward detecting how the brain works. During these scans the participants simply lie in the scanner while doing a task, such as looking at pictures of animals and pressing buttons.
The scans are safe, producing no known harmful effects, and are completely painless. Additionally, Bellgowan emphasizes that participation is voluntary. “Kids can pull out at any time.”
Long Term Goals
Though families can discontinue whenever they want, the researchers hope kids find it interesting enough to stay. “Our goal is to follow kids long-term,” Alvarez says. “We’d like to see how things develop, how the brain changes over time and who does and who doesn’t go on to develop problems.”
Finally, if you think of researchers as being stern, cold individuals in white lab coats, think again. Both Alvarez and Bellgowan are warm, friendly and approachable.
“We both have kids,” Bellgowan says, “and we love working with kids.” She adds that most kids really enjoy the experience. “Kids think the MRI machine is cool. They say it looks like a rocket ship!”
Interested in Participating in LIBR Research?
For more information about LIBR, or if your family is interested in participation, call 918-502-5100 or visit: www.laureateinstitute.org.
For more information about mental disorders, visit the National Institute of Mental Health website at www.nimh.nih.gov.