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VCU researchers receive $2.1 million grant to investigate genetic markers for schizophrenia

The purpose of the four-year grant is to study DNA methylation as it relates to the development of schizophrenia.

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From VCU Press Release:

The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a $2.1 million grant to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine to study potential epigenetic causes of schizophrenia.

The purpose of the four-year grant is to study DNA methylation as it relates to the development of schizophrenia. Methylation is a process that involves small changes to DNA that can be inherited or be the result of environmental factors such as smoking, dietary habits and medical treatment.

“DNA methylation changes over time,” said principal investigator Karolina Aberg, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine and assistant professor at VCU School of Pharmacy. “Age is one aspect that changes methylation patterns, but habits like what you eat and drink and how much you exercise can also have an effect.”

People who have schizophrenia tend to have lifestyle differences that are difficult to control for. “For example, schizophrenia patients tend to smoke more,” Aberg said. “So it is difficult to say if the DNA methylation causes schizophrenia or if schizophrenia changes DNA methylation patterns.”

Aberg and her research team hope to unravel that mystery by using high-throughput DNA sequencing technology to study blood and brain tissue samples. The team has 395 infant blood spots from the Karolinska Institute, a Swedish medical university, that were collected before the onset of schizophrenia. The sample allows for the study of case-control differences without having disease as a confounder. The researchers will merge the information they obtain from the infant blood samples with information from almost 1,500 blood samples from Swedish adults and 400 postmortem brain tissue samples. The samples are divided between schizophrenia patients and individuals who did not have the disease. The project involves measuring the status of approximately 28 million possible methylation sites in the human genome using the DNA sequencing technology.

“We are hoping to identify methylation markers in blood that are associated with schizophrenia,” Aberg said. The blood markers could eventually have clinical value and be used to predict schizophrenia risk. “If those markers are also correlated with markers in brain tissue, it could tell us something about the function and why the risk is there.”

The Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine, which is housed in VCU School of Pharmacy, aims to alleviate the burden of mental illness by using genomic technologies to identify molecular markers that can be used to develop new medications and tailor treatments to individual patients. Schizophrenia is a devastating psychiatric disorder, and Aberg expects that ultimately her research will lead to better identification methods and treatments for people who are diagnosed with the disease.

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Richard Hayes is the co-founder of RVAHub. When he isn't rounding up neighborhood news, he's likely watching soccer or chasing down the latest and greatest board game.

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Byrd House Market to Start Selling on May 4th

The Birdhouse Farmers Market returns for its 15th season on Tuesday, May 4th from 3:00 to 6:30 pm (rain or shine), in the space between the Randolph Community Pool and Petronius Jones Park, at 1507 Grayland Avenue.

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The Birdhouse Farmers Market returns for its 15th season on Tuesday, May 4th from 3:00 to 6:30 pm (rain or shine), in the space between the Randolph Community Pool and Petronius Jones Park, at 1507 Grayland Avenue.
 
This season the market will continue to adhere to social distancing protocols, enforcing spacing regulations between vendors and requiring vendors to wear masks and gloves.
 
In an effort to minimize the duration of the market shopping trip for our customers and to provide food access to as many people in the community as possible, Birdhouse Market will continue to offer online ordering. Buying pages will go live on Thursday morning and close on early Monday morning each week. Walk-up shopping without pre-ordering will also be available, but market management is asking customers to wear a mask, limit their time at the market, practice social distancing for the health of our customers, vendors, and volunteers, and please leave pets at home.
 
Approximately 19 Birdhouse Farmers Market vendors will be selling Virginia-grown produce, cut flowers, meat, specialty baked goods, and more each week.
 
The best way to keep track of weekly activities is to visit our website where you can subscribe to the weekly Birdhouse Market Newsletter, and to follow the market on Facebook and Instagram.
 
“Every spring we get so excited about the return of our in-person market. Despite the pandemic, Birdhouse Farmers Market has shopping alternatives that allow everyone to fully participate, including our SNAP customers. Feeding Richmond well; it’s what we do.”  Kate Ruby, Market Manager
 
ABOUT THE MARKET
 
Birdhouse Farmers Market is a friendly, year-round, all-weather, mid-week, food-focused farmers market promoting healthy eating and a love of community and the environment. Our mission is  strengthening our local food system to improve the health and well-being of the Richmond community.

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Death Investigation on Gilmer Street

Last night at approximately 8:12 p.m., officers were called to the 400 block of Gilmer Street for the report of a shooting.

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From RPD:

Last night at approximately 8:12 p.m., officers were called to the 400 block of Gilmer Street for the report of a shooting. Officers arrived and located a male with an apparent gunshot wound, down and unresponsive on a sidewalk on the 400 block of Gilmer Street. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Medical Examiner will determine the cause and manner of death.

Detectives are aware of the close proximity to Sunday’s fatal shooting on the same block. Detectives are looking into any correlation between the two incidents and whether there is a possible drug nexus.

Anyone with information is asked to call Major Crimes Detective J. Higgins at (804) 814-7570 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones also may be used. All Crime Stoppers reporting methods are anonymous.

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College students reflect on COVID-19 anniversary: ‘I’ve grown up’

One year ago, students at several Virginia universities were on spring break when they received notice they would not return to campus. Students said the past year has been devastating and disorienting, but they have also grown from the experience. 

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By Anya Sczerzenie

Shayla McCartney remembers where she was when the pandemic closed her university.

“It was spring break,” said McCartney, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “I was at home with my mom, we were marathoning ‘Gilmore Girls.’ We got the email that said ‘don’t come back.’”

McCartney said she was upset at the news.

“I had plans,” she said. “I had people I wanted to see.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of more than half a million Virginia college students, including McCartney’s.

“My mental health plummeted, and I didn’t get to see friends,” McCartney said. “I had to come to terms with how to be alone this year.”

The pandemic has impacted lives globally. For young people around the world the coronavirus disrupted their education, jobs and social lives. Many universities and K-12 schools switched to online learning. Some students left campuses to live with their families, while others stayed in on-campus or off-campus housing while taking classes online.

Virginia’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 7— with the first death announced a week later on March 14.

VCU junior Yonathan Mesfun was at his student apartment in Richmond when he received the announcement spring break was extended and in-person classes would move online.

“I got everything, packed up, and headed home,” said Mesfun, who lives in Northern Virginia. “I was just thinking about when it would end, honestly.”

VCU biology major Sellas Habte-Mariam was picking her sister up from track practice when she saw the email that announced the school’s closure.

“My dad had been scaring me the whole time,” Habte-Mariam said. “He said ‘you’re not going back to school.’”

The sophomore said that she spent much of the quarantine period re-reading books. “My favorite is ‘Little Women,’” she said.

Habte-Mariam said adjusting to online classes was difficult.

A survey of over 1,000 Virginia college students by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 76% reported challenges to their mental health during the first months of the pandemic. Another survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M University showed that 71% reported increased stress and anxiety levels. Only 43% said they were able to cope with this stress.

Clinical depression increased 90% among college-aged young adults in the first few months of the pandemic, according to a recently published study. The students’ screen time more than doubled, socialization decreased by over half, and average steps taken declined from 10,000 to 4,600 per day.

College students in the Southeastern U.S. reported higher levels of mood disorder symptoms, stress, and alcohol use during the spring 2020 semester, according to another survey. These returned to pre-pandemic levels by the fall.

Some students faced unique challenges during the pandemic— including international students attending colleges away from their home country.

Sailor Miao, a student from China, returned to his home country and started his first semester at the College of William & Mary online. Miao said the 12-hour time difference made attending class difficult.

“I had to wake up at 2 a.m. for class,” Miao said. “I decided to return to the U.S. because I couldn’t complete another semester online.”

Miao, a political science and government major, said that the pandemic allowed him to finally spend time with his parents.

“I’d been living with a host family for four years,” said Miao, who attended high school in Alabama through an international exchange program. “When I went back to China, I missed graduation. I was the valedictorian of my class, so it was hard.”

Adjusting to online learning was also difficult for students in hands-on majors, such as arts and lab sciences.

George Mason University sophomore Chandler Herr recalled being upset when his school announced it would be closing. He went back to GMU to pack his belongings, then returned home.

“I was disappointed, because I was supposed to work on film sets when I got back,” Herr said. “I was wondering how I could even get a grade for some of my hands-on film classes.”

Herr, a film and video studies major, said he and his professors “mostly gave up” during that spring semester. Remote learning meant the events and hands-on projects “couldn’t be done,” he said.

“We were just flabbergasted to have it all happen,” Herr said. “It was surreal.”

Students have lost jobs, internships and job offers. Many say they expect to learn less at age 35 than previously anticipated, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Almost half of the students SCHEV surveyed reported concern over employment.

One recent win for college students will be their first stimulus check. University students whose parents claim them as dependents did not receive stimulus checks during the early months of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus package which was signed into law on March 11, will allow college students who are dependents to claim the upcoming $1,400 stimulus checks.

The number of daily vaccines given out in Virginia has risen since December. The state has administered almost 2 million first doses of the vaccine and almost 1 million of the second dose. College students usually fall into the lowest-priority group, and many won’t be vaccinated until late spring or early summer. Cases of COVID-19 in Virginia have been trending downward since early February.

Many campuses around the state have reopened with coronavirus testing and new procedures in place.

Kim Case is the director for faculty success at VCU. She oversees the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, which promotes faculty development. The CTLE pivoted quickly last spring and helped prepare instructors to launch remote classes. Case said that she sees hope on the horizon after a year of helping colleagues navigate virtual learning.

“We were all pretty stressed in March 2020 and had no idea how long we would be apart,” she said. “At this point, I am much more hopeful about the future in terms of getting back on campus.”

Shayla McCartney said this year was disorienting, but it helped her grow.

“I’m only just now feeling kind of comfortable,” McCartney said. “I’ve grown up a little bit. I do my schoolwork a lot more.”

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