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Preventing Mental Illness

The early identification of mental disorders and illnesses can lead to early intervention and treatment, and help medical professionals provide better treatment and care to patients. Researchers in UMBC’s psychology, computer science, and electrical engineering departments are working to break ground in these emerging areas of work.

Jason Schiffman, professor of psychology, and psychology Ph.D. candidate Caroline Demro are studying the early identification of psychosis among youth ages 12 to 21, who are at risk for the mental disorder in which a person’s thoughts and emotions lose contact with reality. Diagnosing mental illness in individuals early and tailoring treatment plans to individual patients may help prevent mental illness in people who have risk factors that have been identified at an early age.

For people with indicators of psychosis and other mental illnesses – such as the tendency to mistake sounds for voices or objects – the chemical balance within the brain can differ, including levels of dopamine, which helps control the parts of the brain that indicate reward and pleasure. Schiffman and Demro focus on Baltimore city youth who visit the fMRI facility at Spring Grove for mental health evaluations. They use various techniques to determine how the partners’ brains function at a resting state, including what parts of the brain are receiving oxygen, and then ask subjects to answer questions and complete certain tasks while in the fMRI machine to glean insight into how their brains function and what experiences they have had in the past that may signal potential mental illness in the future. Their findings are consistent with research findings from studying adult brains.

“The implications of the illness are pretty pronounced; the human suffering associated with it are hard to overemphasize for many people,” Schiffman says. “That has implications for their ability to work, their ability to find happiness, and it also has implications for our society in terms of people contributing to society through their gainful employment.”

Fow-Sen Choa, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, is one of three faculty who recently received grant funding from the National Science Foundation under the Neural and Cognitive Systems (NCS) program for his work with faculty at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSM) to develop technology that can deliver stimulation to specific parts of the brain. Deep-brain stimulation is an invasive treatment that is sometimes used to help people with neural diseases, such as Parkinson’s, essential tremor, dystonia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Choa is working to develop a stimulation and monitoring device that will be tested by UMSM researchers on mice – a technology thought to be less invasive than other alternatives.

Choa explains that deep-brain stimulation is typically used as a last-resort treatment when drugs have not been shown to impact the person. The technology he is developing could serve as a tool to help researchers and physicians understand what parts of the brain should be stimulated in individual patients’ brains, and to make modifications and changes to location, frequency, and strength as the operation is in progress.

“If we can find a way to stimulate the brain noninvasively, that is the key,” Choa says.