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Research

The Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior is home to a unique, world-class group of scientists and physicians who conduct patient-oriented basic science and applied research to address major psychiatric disorders.

This internationally recognized team of investigators includes basic and clinical scientists who have helped place UC Irvine School of Medicine in the top echelon of U.S. institutions.

The Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior has a large number of active research programs, including fundamental research efforts and translational programs. This research encompasses many areas in the psychopathology and psychopharmacology of neuropsychiatric disorders.

Fundamental research in the Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior focuses on the neuropsychiatric disease processes in:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Huntington's disease
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Clinical trials include ongoing studies of the above-mentioned disorders. A research priority of the department is building translational programs to translate basic research findings into clinical therapeutics.

Basic research studies include:

  • Nanotechnology and nanomedicine
  • Stem cell investigations
  • Fluorescent deconvoluted tomography (FDT) to study synapses

Clinical research studies include:

  • Drug trials
  • Brain imaging studies
    • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
    • Positron emission tomography (PET)
    • EEG investigations
    • Genetic and genomic investigations
      • Microarrays
      • Next generation sequencing
      • Studies of CNVs, Indels
      • Somatic and germline retrotransposition events
      • Epigenetics
      • Role of circadian machinery in psychiatric disorders
      • Human pregnancy and fetal development studies

We welcome your interest in psychiatric research activities. We encourage medical students, resident trainees and young investigators to establish mentoring relationships with our faculty members. 

If you are interested in research activities or collaboration opportunities within our department, please contact Richard Stein, PhD, (rstein@uci.edu), who will direct you to the scientist relevant to your area of interest. 

Faculty research areas

Rimal B. Bera, MD, studies health outcomes in patients with schizophrenia. He investigates the effect of long-acting injectable antipsychotics on patients with schizophrenia, including the study of decreased recidivism, decreased caregiver burden, improved medical health and decreased polypharmacy. One aspect of Bera’s research focuses on helping physicians communicate with patients when presenting long-acting injectable antipsychotics to decrease resistance.

William E. Bunney, MD, has research interests involving studies of biopolar disorder and schizophrenia. These include studies of the efficacy and mode of action of psychopharmacological agents; brain imaging studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET); molecular genetics research with microarrays, next-generation sequencing and methylation assays; the investigation of brain circuitry abnormalities; clinical and genetic biomarkers for suicidal behavior; and pioneering research on clock genes in normal and major depressive disorder brain tissue.

Michael Hollifield, MD, has primary research interests involving anxiety disorders; the effects of severe trauma and adverse life events on health outcomes; how biological and behavioral factors play a role in the negative effects from trauma and adverse life events; and how clinical interventions can help to alter these bio-behavioral factors. Of specific interest are effects of natural disaster on refugees in Sri Lanka after the Asian tsunami, and investigating the use of acupuncture and imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) in the treatment of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hollifield also studies use of cognitive behavioral therapy and acupuncture for treating PTSD in US civilian and veteran populations. More information can be found at SCIRE Long Beach ›

Christy Ling Hom, PhD, is involved in multiple research studies. One is a clinical trial for an investigational drug titled "A 4-Week Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Phase 2a Safety and Pharmacokinetic Study of Oral ELND005 in Young Adults with Down Syndrome without Dementia." Another is an ongoing research study assessing medication adherence among individuals with developmental disabilities using Medi-Cal pharmacy records and Regional Center of Orange County records. Hom's third research project involves data from the Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Clinic, examing the prevalence of polypharmacy, psychiatric disorders and behavioral disorders among individual with developmental disabilities.

Gary S. Lynch, PhD, and his research team have developed a detailed description of the synaptic signaling events that encode long-term memory. This has gained broad acceptance as evidenced by recent papers employing the model to explain phenomenon such as drug addiction. Using this model, the Lynch laboratory has discovered that rodent models for nine different neuropsychiatric conditions associated with learning problems have a common endpoint failure in the machinery that reorganizes synapses. In parallel with this work, Lynch and his researchers have developed a class of drugs that corrects, via a known mechanism, the synaptic signaling problems in each of the rodent models so far tested. Lynch is currently testing the admittedly radical hypothesis that the emergence of the synaptic machinery required for encoding long-term memory during postnatal development terminates neuronal growth and thereby sets the stage for age-related deterioration of brain. 

Julie Patterson, PhD, has focused on the investigation of markers/biomarkers that can aid in the study and treatment of psychiatric disorders (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression), and studies cognition and brain function measurements by using the electroencephalogram.

Steven Potkin, MD, focuses on the use of neuroimaging, neurophysiology, neuropsychology, genomic and post-mortem neuroscience to investigate the underlying causes of schizophrenia, affective disorder and dementia. Potkin’s goal is to develop novel treatment for these illnesses. With colleagues, he has pioneered the use of brain imaging as a quantitative phenotype to discover unanticipated risk genes for serious mental illness. This has led to confirmed discoveries such as microRNA-137, TNIK and TOMM40.

Christopher Reist, MD, focuses on novel approaches to treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Department of Defense is funding one project examining how virtual reality (VR) environments can aid in conducting prolonged exposure therapy for the treatment of combat-related PTSD.  A new project will expand the use of VR to address PTSD related to military sexual trauma. Reist is also studying how cognitive enhancers (d-cycloserine) and affect fear extinction learning, one of the mechanisms thought to underlie prolonged exposure therapy.  Other novel treatments Reist is investigating include stellate ganglion blockade and the use of prazosin for treating PTSD. Another research area is the development of assessment tools to measure psychological pain, a unique experiential aspect of depression and a potential risk factor for suicidal behavior. The Mee-Bunney Psychological Pain Scale has been validated and is now being studied in high-risk populations to determine its clinical utility. 

Curt A. Sandman, PhD, has been the principal investigator for 20 years for a consecutive series of NIH-supported studies examining the "programming" effects of stress and activation of the HPA/placental axis on human fetus birth outcomes and child development. In addition, he received a recent grant to conduct imaging studies of the brain in children with extensive prenatal histories. The findings from Sandman's projects include more than 800 mother/fetal/infant/child dyads, which have contributed to the growing acceptance that prenatal stress has consequences for neurological development and is a risk factor for poor postnatal maternal and infant developmental outcomes.

Pedro Adolfo Sequeira, PhD, focuses on exploring the genetic and molecular basis of neuropsychiatric disorders to find markers for prevention or for the development of therapeutic interventions. Sequeira uses a candidate gene approach and a case-control design to carry out genetic variation studies. He is also involved in gene expression studies of cortical and subcortical (hippocampus, limbic system) regions from psychiatric subjects (suicides or not) and normal controls. The main purpose of these studies is to explore the relationship between changes in gene expression and genetics in relation to neuropsychiatric disorders.

Joan Sawyer Steffan, PhD, focuses on finding a therapy for the neurodegenerative disorder Huntington’s disease (HD). HD is caused by an expansion of a polyglutamine (polyQ) repeat within the protein huntingtin (HTT). Steffan and her research group have found that HTT is phosphorylated by the inflammatory kinase IKK adjacent to its polyQ repeat, resulting in its SUMOylation and acetylation, modifications that regulate its cellular localization, oligomerization, toxicity and clearance. The Steffan laboratory is investigating the role of IKK in HD pathogenesis in vivo in mice. In addition, Steffan is studying HTT function as a scaffold for selective autophagy, which may be impaired with HTT mutation ultimately resulting in HD. Pharmacologic modulation of HTT phosphorylation, acetylation and SUMOylation may be useful to alter HTT’s autophagic function therapeutically in diseases of inflammation, infection and aging, including cancer, diabetes and neurodegeneration. Steffan hopes that a better understanding HTT function may allow the design of therapies to treat HD and many other diseases. 

Leslie M. Thompson, PhD, focuses on Huntington’s disease, a devastating neurodegenerative disease, with the goal of understanding the underlying mechanisms that contribute to disease onset and progression. Ongoing studies include investigations of epigenetic changes and transcriptional dysregulation, alterations of cellular signaling pathways, reduced clearance of the mutant protein and modifications of the mutant protein that impact disease. Recent efforts have focused on the use of human stem cells to more closely replicate disease symptoms in a dish and for transplantation approaches. The goal of this research is to slow or stop progression of the disease and apply these findings broadly to other human brain neurologic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. 

Theo G.M. Van Erp, PhD, aims to discover the nature, sources (genetic or environmental) and pathogenesis (development) of the neural mechanisms underlying major neuropsychiatric disorders through the use of behavioral, brain morphological (MRI), biochemical (MRS), and functional (fMRI) measures, in combination with imaging-genetics and pharmaco-imaging approaches. Van Erp’s research group is currently funded to study memory processes in schizophrenia using high-resolution fMRI of the hippocampus. 

Marquis P. Vawter, PhD, focuses on the pathophysiology of mental disorders beginning with the abnormal expression of cellular molecules in different brain circuits. Since the sequencing of the human genome was completed, one goal is to understand and map the human brain transcriptome using next-generation sequencing. Understanding the localization of RNA transcripts in the human brain will allow a better understanding of the possible role of variants discovered by genome-wide association studies. Vawter studies mitochondrial alterations in brain, and he continues to search for rare and common variants in coding and non-coding regions of mitochondrial DNA that are associated with mental disorders. He has been interested in isolated populations and has studied large multiplex families with schizophrenia.

Pathik D. Wadhwa, MD, PhD, has joint appointments in the departments of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Pediatrics and Epidemiology. Wadhwa is the founding director of the UC Irvine Development, Health and Disease Research Program. His research examines the interface between biological, social and behavioral processes in human pregnancy and fetal development, with an emphasis on outcomes related to birth and subsequent newborn, infant and child mental and physical health. In particular, this work focuses on the role of maternal-placental-fetal neuroendocrine, immune and genetic/epigenetic processes, including telomere and mitochondrial biology, as putative mechanisms that mediate the effects of the maternal environment, and particularly of prenatal stress, on early human development. Wadhwa’s research portfolio spans numerous UC Irvine-based, as well as nationally and internationally-based, studies across North America, Europe and Australia. Wadhwa is the recipient of several honors and awards, including recognition for his career contributions from the Academy of Behavioral Medicine, the Perinatal Research Society, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Library of Congress and the World Health Organization.  

Joseph C. Wu, MD, has research interests that include the study of rapid antidepressant treatment of mood disorders using chronobiological manipulations such as sleep deprivation or light therapy in conjunction with other rapid antidepressant treatments such as intravenous ketamine. Wu also studies traumatic brain injury and depression, and how neuropsychiatric conditions are manifested in axonal disruption as assessed by MRI diffusion tensor imaging and positron emission tomography.