The Life Of A Mental Health Research Fellow in the USA

Applications to become an MQ member are open to researchers in the United States. This is an opportunity to receive not only financial support but also practical support from the MQ team. But what is it like to apply and be selected for an MQ scholarship?

One of the first MQ fellows selected was Dr. Joshua Roffman from Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital . He tells us the internal story of the process and what be a member of MQ it is like.

I was excited and honored to be selected as one of the first MQ Fellows in 2014. At that point in my career, I had enough experience to know that I needed to shift my focus to make a greater public health impact: to the area of ​​prevention. . , where there is a tremendous unmet need in psychiatry. But it was also early enough in my career that large funding agencies like the NIH (National Institutes of Health) considered this change too scientifically risky to invest in.

Exciting beginnings

The MQ Fellows program seemed like the perfect catalyst at the time, providing me with support to grow in a new area. Much of my previous research had focused on the biology of chronic psychosis using brain imaging and genomic tools and had pointed to a promising treatment involving folic acid supplements. In fact, clinical trials conducted by our group showed some degree of benefit, but well below the level necessary to substantially improve outcomes.

At the same time, other groups using different tools (population health and birth cohort studies) found that folic acid given early in prenatal life conferred substantial protective effects against autism risk. Given the known areas of overlap in the risk of autism and schizophrenia, I wondered whether periconceptional folic acid might also confer protection against the risk of schizophrenia.

But there were enormous challenges, both from the point of view of experimental design, given the two decades between prenatal life and the typical onset of schizophrenia, and given my lack of experience in population-level studies.

Ambition and mentorship

MQ provided me with the platform to not only develop and test an ambitious idea, but also to receive additional mentorship from one of the world’s experts in this area (Dr. Ezra Susser).

We decided to take advantage of the US population-wide rollout of folic acid fortification of cereal products in the late 1990s. This intervention rapidly doubled blood folate levels in women capable of becoming pregnant and dramatically reduced the incidence of thorn. bifida. As a “natural experiment,” we used this to study the effects of increased periconceptional exposure to folic acid on brain development during adolescence.

Using existing MRI data from two large groups of adolescents, we found that those born during or just after the launch of the fortification showed more favorable patterns of cortical development than those born just before and that this pattern was associated with a reduced risk of symptoms psychotic.

This discovery changed my career path and generated substantial additional funding from federal and non-federal grants.

Moving forward from here

My laboratory’s focus has now shifted to early brain development, with the goal of discovering, developing and implementing additional interventions that promote healthy brain development, with folic acid as the prototype.

We continue to focus on psychosis prevention as a primary endpoint, but we have also expanded to consider the risk of other psychiatric disorders that may have shared biological underpinnings.

We are studying people from early pregnancy to late adolescence with a broad arsenal of approaches, from imaging and genomics to prospective cohort studies and qualitative research aimed at reaching families who have historically been excluded from psychiatry research. translational.

This is all thanks to MQ and their investment in me at a critical time at the beginning of my career. I feel fortunate to be a member of the MQ community and, as someone who now trains early career scientists, I am much more grateful for the opportunities I am given.

Our thanks to Dr. Joshua Roffman for his story. You can read Joshua’s full article here..

If you would like to apply for the next round of MQ Scholarships, find out more about the 2024 Scholarship opportunity and how to apply here.

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