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Probing the roots of mental illness & addiction: U-M researchers win national award

Huda Akil and Stanley Watson receive Institute of Medicine's Sarnat Prize

WASHINGTON, D.C. A pair of University of Michigan mental health researchers who are partners in both research and life have won a prestigious national prize for their studies on the biological roots of emotions, mental illness and substance abuse.

Huda Akil, Ph.D., and Stanley J. Watson, M.D., Ph.D., who co-direct the U-M Medical School’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute (MBNI), were awarded the 2012 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health today by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The prize, which consists of a medal and $20,000, was presented at the IOM's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

The honor salutes decades of work that has revealed key aspects of the molecules and neurobiological circuitry behind pain and stress, and substantially expanded understanding of mood disorders, addiction, and other conditions, pointing the way to new targets for treatment and prevention. Akil and Watson have developed research tools and models that have been widely adopted in the neuroscience field. 

"I'm deeply gratified to present this award to Drs. Huda Akil and Stanley Watson, whose research has greatly enhanced our understanding of the neurological basis of mental illness and addiction," said IOM president Harvey V. Fineberg.  "Each individually merits this recognition, and their complementary discoveries and achievements have multiplied the impact of each other's work and serve as an inspiration to others engaged in cross-disciplinary research."

“With this prize, Stan and Huda join a distinguished group of individuals who have dedicated their professional careers to understanding mental health disorders. Their tremendous contributions will impact human health and well-being for generations,” says Medical School dean James O. Woolliscroft, M.D. “We're proud to count them among our most illustrious faculty at the University of Michigan.”

Akil is a Distinguished University Professor and the Gardner C. Quarton Professor of Neurosciences, and Watson is the Ralph Waldo Gerard Professor of Neurosciences, at U-M. Both are research professors at MBNI and professors in the Department of Psychiatry. Together, they head an interdisciplinary institute that has had a leading role in neuroscience research for more than 50 years and currently includes 18 primary faculty members and dozens of trainees supported by about $9 million in grant funding.

As research collaborators and a husband-and-wife team since the mid-1970s, Watson's and Akil's research has often built on the other's work.  For example, their research on endorphins and stress offers a broad picture of the molecular, anatomical, and functional mechanisms that coordinate the many roles of these brain biochemicals in the regulation of pain, stress, and the drug reward system. 

Watson's interest in the molecular architecture of the brain led him to co-develop the technique of in situ hybridization for studying where and how genes and their products are expressed and regulated in the brain, a tool that has become standard in many neuroscience laboratories. Meanwhile, Akil discovered the first physiological evidence for a natural pain-inhibiting system in the brain that releases endorphins in response to stress. 

Together, they detailed the biochemical and anatomical aspects of this stress response system and mapped the specific biochemistry of endorphins in key regions in the brain. These insights have in turn elucidated the altered biological response to psychosocial stressors experienced by people with severe depression and other mood disorders.

Watson's laboratory has generated comprehensive maps of several other neurotransmitter systems that underlie many mental health disorders, including the three opioid precursors and their receptors and five dopamine receptor systems. This mapping has illuminated the mechanisms of mental illness and addiction, and drawings derived from this work hang on laboratory walls across the globe. His analysis of brain tissue from patients who suffered from severe mood disorders has identified changes in several pathways in the brain that are linked to these conditions, suggesting novel targets for treatment.

Akil's research has led to the discovery of many molecules in the brain that are associated with mood, emotional control, and susceptibility to disorders and addiction, and her laboratory has developed several animal models to explore the workings of neurotransmitter systems and their roles in mood disorders as well as substance abuse. Her analysis of the relationship between the structure and functional selectivity of opioid receptors has furthered our understanding of people's ability to develop tolerance and addiction to opiates.

Akil's research team was the first to demonstrate the glucocorticoid receptor's roles in anxiety and emotional control, and her team recently developed evidence strongly implicating low levels of certain growth factors in severe depression and anxiety, revealing new potential targets for treating mood disorders.

Akil and Watson are the co-Directors of the Michigan node of the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Research Consortium, a multi-institutional collaborative effort aimed at uncovering the neurobiological and genetic causes of major depression, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia.

They are the recipients of many honors and awards, including election to the Institute of Medicine in 1994 and election as fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2000.  Akil was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, and Watson has been named one of the most highly cited neuroscientists by the Science Citation Index.

Since 1992 the Institute of Medicine has presented the Sarnat Prize to individuals, groups, or organizations that have demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving mental health.  The prize recognizes -- without regard for professional discipline or nationality -- achievements in basic science, clinical application, and public policy that lead to progress in the understanding, etiology, prevention, treatment, or cure of mental disorders, or to the promotion of mental health.  As defined by the nominating criteria, the field of mental health encompasses neuroscience, psychology, social work, nursing, psychiatry, and advocacy among other disciplines.

The award is supported by an endowment created by Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat, whose concern about the destructive effects of mental illness inspired them to establish the award.  Nominations for potential recipients are solicited every year from IOM members, mental health professionals, and others. Additional information on the Sarnat Prize can be found at 

Adapted from a press release by the IOM/NAS press office. Writing credit is shared.

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