Updated: Sep 12
McKee Foundation Awards $20,000 Research Grant to TTUHSC El Paso’s Southwest Brain Bank
The pursuit of answers on how to better address mental illness and care for those affected by mental health issues does not end with a person’s passing.
The Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation is contributing to this search by awarding a $20,000 grant to the Southwest Brain Bank at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. Half of the grant will be used for acquiring and storing brain tissue samples, while the other half will fund the research of Bharathi Gadad, Ph.D., co-director of the Southwest Brain Bank and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at TTUHSC El Paso.
Dr. Gadad's focus is on neuroscience research related to psychiatric illness. The Southwest Brain Bank, a research organization that collects, studies, and distributes donated brain tissue to scientists, is central to her work at TTUHSC El Paso.
The grant will focus on understanding the genetics and cell signaling of major depression and suicide using post-mortem human brain subjects. The grant will also look at the gender-based differential expression of genes in major depression and suicide.
“Studying the brains of individuals who have died by suicide or had a history of major depression can provide important insights into the biological and neurological underpinnings of these conditions and how they might affect the living brain,” Dr. Gadad said.
The purpose of this research is to gain a deeper understanding of how the brain functions and how it changes when affected by psychiatric illness. Studying brain tissue helps scientists develop new approaches to diagnosis and improve treatments, making the collection of samples from individuals with and without illness crucial to ongoing research.
Mental health research at TTUHSC El Paso includes the Southwest Brain Bank, which provides brain tissue samples to scientists studying the relationship between the brain and psychiatric illness.
The brain bank’s location on the U.S.-Mexico border is key to research that could help close the science gap that has historically left Hispanic individuals behind.
The Southwest Brain Bank has a large majority of Hispanic brain tissue, with approximately 60% of its brain donors being of Hispanic ethnicity.
“This is significant because the Hispanic population is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, and yet it has been historically underrepresented in medical research,” Dr. Gadad said. “The large collection of Hispanic brain tissue in the Southwest Brain Bank provides researchers with a unique opportunity to study how mental illness affects this population specifically. For example, researchers can use the brain tissue to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie major depression and other psychiatric disorders in Hispanic individuals, such as differences in gene expression or brain circuitry.”
She added that studying the brains of Hispanic individuals who have suffered from mental illness can help identify potential cultural and environmental factors that contribute to the development of these conditions in this population.
“For instance, Hispanic individuals may face unique challenges related to immigration, language barriers, or discrimination that could impact their mental health,” Dr. Gadad said. “Overall, the large collection of Hispanic brain tissue in the Southwest Brain Bank is a valuable resource for researchers who are interested in understanding the biological and sociocultural factors that contribute to mental illness in this population. This research can ultimately lead to more personalized and effective treatments for Hispanic individuals who suffer from mental illness.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes due to multiple factors including inaccessibility of high-quality mental health care services, cultural stigma surrounding mental health care, discrimination, and overall lack of awareness about mental health.
Mental health disparities exist among various racial/ethnic minority groups, leading to differential access to mental health care. In 2015, it was found that among adults with any mental illness, 48% of whites received mental health services, while only 31% of Blacks and Hispanics, and 22% of Asians received such care. These statistics highlight the variations in mental health service utilization across different ethnic/racial groups.
Currently there is a spike in mental health cases worldwide, U.S. and in El Paso, as well, Dr. Gadad said.
“El Paso, like many other cities in the United States, has faced challenges in terms of mental health,” Dr. Gadad said. “According to a 2021 report by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the rate of adults in El Paso who reported poor mental health was higher than the state average. The report also stated that suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals aged 15-34 in El Paso County.”
Studying these brains could help in understanding mental health in minorities because minorities represent less than 30% of those enrolled in National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trials, according to a recent NIH report. Hispanics made up less than 7.6% of trial participants.
Dr. Gadad has over 20 years of experience in biological psychiatry, with a particular focus on immune system regulatory mechanisms. She has co-authored 52 highly reputed research journal articles, including those in Molecular Psychiatry, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Translational Psychiatry.
The Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation has supported philanthropic causes since 1952, and TTUHSC El Paso is one of many organizations the foundation supports. The foundation donated to the Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso Breast Care Center in 1995, marking the start of their contributions to the university. Since then, the foundation has donated $219,000 to TTUHSC El Paso, including $115,000 to the Southwest Brain Bank, $96,000 to the Breast Cancer Center, and $8,000 to other areas of TTUHSC El Paso.
Read More: TECH TALK - JUN 12, 2023
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