By: Deanna Rebro | Category: Health & Fitness | Issue: July 2010
Through a new research study at Laureate Institute for Brain Research, Dr. Ruben Alvarez (right) and staff scientist Julie Bellgowan aim to keep young people from suffering with mental illness.
Ever wonder why some kids can cope with stress and anxiety, while others simply “lose it”?
Dr. Ruben Alvarez, Assistant Professor at Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), is working to find the answer to this question. Dr. Alvarez is recruiting volunteers between the ages of 8 and 17 to participate in a milestone study to better understand how biological factors predispose certain individuals to anxiety disorders and lead others to successfully cope with significant stress, trauma and adversity.
“My research focuses on how children and adolescents acquire resilience,” explains Dr. Alvarez. He and his staff use assessment tools, along with a process called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which takes pictures of the brain and allows scientists to track brain functions during various tasks.
The study, as well as LIBR itself, is the first of its kind in Oklahoma. The Institute for Brain Research, which houses research scientists and staff, opened a year ago. Laureate is widely recognized to be in the forefront of mental health research.
Researchers believe mental illness is organic, just like heart disease or diabetes. There’s a pathway along the progression. According to Dr. Alvarez, their better understanding of this pathway helps achieve three goals of the study: (1) identify early symptoms; (2) intervene to prevent illnesses from occurring; and (3) treat through the development of novel therapies to help individuals recover.
By comparing brain scans of healthy, resilient development among the control participants with those who have a diagnosis of stress-related or fear-based disorders such as depression and anxiety, they hope to identify what goes wrong in the brain and when. As a result, they can potentially improve treatment for anxiety disorders that are still in early stages.
Dr. Alvarez describes this as an “urgent study.” More and more young people across all socioeconomic lines are showing signs of serious difficulty coping with everyday life. Nationwide studies indicate first problematic symptoms often are exhibited in childhood and adolescents. Yet, first treatment does not occur to age 24. The progression of mental illness puts these people at risk for future development of substance abuse and disabling depression.
Julie Bellgowan, staff scientist for Dr. Wayne Drevets, director and president of LIBR, works with children during the scanning process of the study. She says kids are fascinated with the scanner and how it works. The fMRI generally is painless and produces no known harmful effects. A simulator is available for practice and to see ahead of time what to expect. “They’re so excited when they see actual pictures of their brain. If kids didn’t like science before, they do this moment,” she says with a laugh.
Julie adds that early participants have found the study to be a safe and fun learning experience, and a great opportunity to give back by helping others in a unique and very important way. Directly or indirectly, they could help a friend, classmate or relative who suffers with a brain-based disorder that keeps them from functioning in a daily capacity.
Participants in Dr. Alvarez’s control study must be between the ages of 8 and 17, free of current or past psychiatric illness, free of serious medical illness and with no history of head trauma.
For more information, call (918) 502-5100. Healthy volunteers who fulfill the study criteria for acceptance will be compensated for their time and effort.
Deanna Rebro has worked in the publishing industry 30+ years, including eight years writing for Value News. She has also worked in real estate for the past six years. Deanna graduated from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio with a B.A. in Journalism. Outside of work, she serves as Vice President on the Board of Directors for Pet Adoption League. “Every story I write is a learning experience,” she said.