Mental illnesses exact a terrible toll on people, through lives lost to suicide, drug abuse and other maladaptive coping mechanisms. More than one quarter of Americans will suffer a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime, and the most common of these are mood and anxiety disorders.
Many researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health see patients at the affiliated Wisconsin Psychiatric Institute, which inspires their work.
Dr. Ned Kalin, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, is an accomplished biological psychiatrist whose research focuses on anxiety. Through imaging studies and understanding the genetic and environmental components of mental illness, his lab is working toward discoveries that can form the basis of early interventions to treat children who are at risk of developing long-term anxiety and related psychiatric disorders.
Primate studies lead to significant advances
Much of the work by scientists like Kalin that helped establish that anxiety is a lifelong trait, has a unique signature in the brain and can be inherited genetically has been done on young rhesus monkeys born into UW-Madison’s primate research colonies.
Primates and humans share important similarities in behavior, emotion, social relationships and brain function that are not common to other species such as rodents.
Researchers use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other techniques to examine the brains of monkeys in order to understand the workings of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region of many "higher" cognitive functions and frequently a site of malfunction in psychiatric illness.
This cannot be adequately accomplished in rodent species. Because of the relatedness between human and nonhuman primates, studying their brains offers the best chance to identify better treatments for human psychiatric disorders.
Current research has evolved
Some critics have compared the treatment of these monkeys to the maternal deprivation experiments from the 1950s. Those famous studies by Dr. Harry Harlow and others yielded groundbreaking insights into maternal-child bonding that changed the way young children are cared for today in neonatal intensive care and other settings.
But as important as those early studies were, the research proposed here seeks to answer different questions than those originally asked by Harlow.
Once the experiment is under way, the young monkeys will grow up interacting with other young monkey peers. They are reared first in a nursery under constant veterinary care with a surrogate mother and then moved to cages with another young monkey.
This well-established approach is used in laboratories and zoos all over the world to mitigate the isolation and neglect due to spontaneous maternal rejection. It can be compared to the separation between cow and calf that occurs on modern Wisconsin dairy farms. It does not produce the level of traumatic isolation and abuse that many children experience, but it does model a fairly common level of moderate early-life stress among children.
Insights gained will guide new therapies
The goal of these studies is to find interventions that prevent or reverse the long-term psychological consequences of early adversity in human children. Understanding how adversity affects the brain’s neurochemicals will guide researchers in developing new treatments to alleviate human suffering. Recent studies on the neural circuits that account for different presentations of anxiety in monkeys is now being duplicated in children with and without anxiety symptoms.
Related UW School of Medicine and Public Health research demonstrates why this is so critical. A 2012 study that has followed 550 Wisconsin children from birth shows that stressful events early in life change the brains of babies to make them more susceptible to stress and anxiety as they grow older. Researchers were able to identify and understand the brain changes observed in adolescent girls in part because of imaging work done on monkeys.
This groundbreaking research is being featured in an upcoming PBS documentary "The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation." Other UW-Madison research has helped point to the importance of early childhood interventions to save children from developing anxiety, depression and the drug and alcohol abuse that can arise as an attempt at self-medication. Anxiety and depression can be crippling, and this important research provides a real chance to better understand and alleviate human suffering.