Alan Anticevic, who completed his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Washington University in 2011, was recently awarded one of fourteen NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards.
He is currently an associate research scientist in psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and the Administrative Director of the Yale Center for the Translational Neuroscience of Alcoholism. At Yale, Anticevic has worked closely with mentor John Krystal, professor and chair of the psychiatry department.
“Personally, it’s transformative,” Anticevic says of winning the award, which will launch him into an independent research position—a rare opportunity for young scientists without extensive postdoc training. “The award is designed to rapidly accelerate the progress of researchers who are in the early stages of their academic development. In that sense, this grant does something that no other NIH grant is designed to do.”
Anticevic uses a multidisciplinary approach to research the underlying biological disturbances that contribute to complex severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Using a combination of neuroimaging, computational modeling, pharmacological approaches, and clinical investigation, he aims to better understand the origins of cognitive dysfunction in neuropsychiatric illness at the cellular level.
“Even subtle disturbances in the brain can really disrupt behavior in a profound way,” he says. “The brain is an incredibly complex system. We need to harness any available tool possible to understand its function.”
According to Anticevic, Washington University is one of the only institutions in the world to offer this type of multidisciplinary training in neuroscience. Following the Cognitive Computational and Systems Neuroscience Pathway (CCSN), he worked closely with Deanna Barch, professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Radiology, and David Van Essen, professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology.
“I think that the primary credit to getting this award needs to go to Alan and the skills and abilities he brings to his work, which include a keen intellect, major curiosity, and an unbelievable work ethic!” Barch wrote in an e-mail, adding that Washington University’s Ph.D. program in psychology and the CCSN pathway also contributed to shaping Anticevic’s research.
“The CCSN pathway developed out of the recognition that in order to make progress in understanding brain-based psychopathology, we need to blur the traditional lines between brain-related research in psychology, biology and engineering,” Barch wrote. “I think this has helped to give [Alan] a unique perspective that allowed him to integrate diverse lines of research into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.”
CCSN is a specialized interdisciplinary curriculum at Washington University available to graduate students pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience, psychology, or biomedical engineering. As one of the first students to graduate from this program, Anticevic believes his education at Washington University uniquely prepared him for a future in clinical neuroscience research.
“With Deanna Barch, I was trained in cognitive neuroscience approaches to studying mental illness,” he says. “From the start of my graduate training, I was exposed to ways of thinking about the brain from all different multi-disciplinary perspectives. The transition to Yale was motivated precisely by that training.”
With the funding from the Director’s Award, Anticevic will embark on a five-year large-scale study investigating the cellular dysfunctions associated with schizophrenia.
“I’d like to think that it will have a massive impact,” he says. “No matter the outcome of the study, we’ll have an answer to a critical question. There is also a methodological innovation here. By combining pharmacological neuroimaging with computational models developed at the cellular level, the study will help us develop tools that we don’t really have in the field.”
One of Anticevic’s long-term goals is to help reduce the stigma attached to mental illness by illuminating the role of biology and genetics.
“I think that complex mental illness has a neurobiological root, at least to a certain extent,” says Anticevic, who uses Parkinson’s disease as an example of another biologically based brain disorder that is not stigmatized the way mental illness is.
“Here we have an abnormality in the brain linked to dopamine function that affects movement and behavior – it’s called Parkinson’s disease,” he says. “And here we have another abnormality linked to dopamine function that affects behavior profoundly, schizophrenia, and yet there’s a stigma associated with it.”
While massive advancements in the field of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience have been made in the last thirty years, Anticevic hopes that multidisciplinary research methods like his will be used more widely in the future. These methods, he believes, will illuminate central themes in our understanding of the brain and enable us to treat complex mental illness more effectively.
“We’re on the cusp of being able to do that,” he says. “That, for me, is deeply exciting.”
by Kate Marcal