Healthy Choices

New UC Davis mental health research center will pursue mysteries of the brain

With much fanfare and a blue ribbon-cutting ceremony, UC Davis officials unveiled plans Wednesday for a new pair of ambitious academic mental-health research centers – one in Sacramento at the UC Davis medical campus and the other in Southern California, run by UCLA.

Researchers at the universities will work together, sharing findings ranging from new discoveries in neuroscience to advances in basic clinical science.

With an explicit goal and a clear deadline, university officials said they were energized by an urgent need for improved mental health care in the Sacramento and Central Valley regions.

“Our systems don’t work, and we know that mental illness has a huge impact on society,” said Dr. Frederick Meyers, vice dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, as he addressed more than 100 mental health professionals and advocates gathered in the school’s education building. “We’re impatient and not ready to settle for the way things are.”

By mid-2017, university officials must show tangible progress toward identifying early intervention and prevention treatments for people just beginning to show signs of mental illness. Each university will receive $7.5 million from Proposition 63’s mental health fund, enough to jump-start what officials hope is just a first phase of discovery.

Meyers said the “landmark funding” will spark a public-health collaboration at the new Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis, bringing counties into the fold of the university’s work. Sacramento County, for one, will likely benefit because its mental health programs withered for years due to paltry budgets during the recession.

As with autism, early treatment is essential to helping mental-health patients halt a slide into severe disability, experts say. And as with any disease, such as cancer, treatment becomes more difficult, intense and costly when a chronic sufferer is left to deteriorate.

Dr. Cameron Carter, director of the new initiative, said research worldwide shows that early intervention works. The Australian native is a professor of psychiatry and psychology and director of UC Davis’ Imaging Research Center & Translational Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience Program.

“If you can catch someone very early before they get incredibly sick, before they fail in school, before they are incarcerated, you can prevent a lot of those negative outcomes,” Carter said in an interview.

University officials said the center also will serve as a hub for all of the university’s wide-ranging research. This includes the work of the MIND Institute, nationally acclaimed for its advances in autism research, and the Center for Mind and Brain, where researchers track scientific evidence that the brain is calmed through meditation. While the latter project measures the brain’s electrical currents, a separate project is using magnetic resonance imaging to map brain changes in subjects who practice mindfulness stress reduction techniques.

The range of scientific inquiry at UC Davis may bring federal money to the project, Carter said, under President Obama’s nationwide call for deeper study and exploration of the mysteries of the human brain.

In the meantime, UC Davis Health System officials are relying on the staff of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to pull together their kick-starter funding. Steinberg, who is stepping down as Senate leader on Oct. 15 and leaving the Legislature at the end of November due to term limits, was praised by many speakers at the gathering for his work on behalf of mental health.

“This center will be a catalyst to improving our understanding of our brains,” Steinberg said at the lectern. “This is an issue that knows no partisan lines, geographical boundaries, gender, sexual orientation or age limits. If we can recognize the early signs and use early intervention and prevention strategies that can prevent first breaks, we can prevent suffering.

“What we are doing here today, we are planting a seed,” Steinberg said. “We are planting a big seed.”

Among the speakers was Bonnie Hotz, a patient advocate and parent of a daughter who is recovering from a severe mood disorder that took hold during her teenage years. Hotz urged attendees to reach out to those with mental illness or their families.

“Imagine looking into your child’s eyes and not recognizing her,” Hotz said, “Your child’s life, as well as yours, is in limbo. The disorder disrupts education, disrupts friendships. People become uncomfortable and drift away, leaving the family isolated.” she said. “When your child has a psychotic break, don’t expect a casserole.”