Teams of UCI researchers are working to unlock the mysteries behind depression. Here’s how their work could have a positive impact on mental health

A disorder that can impact anyone 

Depression affects 1 in 4 people in the United States and is the leading cause of disability among people between the ages of 15 and 44. And studies have found that the millions of people suffering with depression experience an impaired quality of life.

As you can imagine, understanding how depression impacts the brain is a top priority for biomedical researchers. Little is known about the genesis, course or resolution of depression. UCI is at the forefront of this research, bringing together scientists across disciplines and leveraging the most advanced tools of neuroscience to reveal the mysteries of the brain and learn how to more effectively treat depression.

A top research university mobilizing to learn more

Michael Yassa, Ph.D., UCI professor of neurobiology & behavior, directs the UCI Brain Initiative, which brings together experts in fields across the university to uncover the secrets behind the brain and mood disorders.

“UCI’s scientists are taking bold steps in understanding how brain circuits become rewired by depression. They work across disciplines and use the most cutting-edge neuroscience technologies to study the brain’s most vulnerable circuits and how they’re changed with depression. This groundbreaking work is charting new frontiers in mental health research and builds the foundation needed to effectively treat depression.” – Michael Yassa, Ph.D., UCI professor of neurobiology & behavior and director of the UCI Brain Initiative

Below are just a few examples of the innovative research that Yassa and his UCI translational neuroscience lab team are working on today: 

  • Using emotional memory tasks to better understand depression 
    A UCI team is employing an innovative technique, manipulating the emotional content presented to patients with depression, to examine the content’s effect on certain types of memory function – which can be a key symptom in depression.
  • Studying the connection between early-life experiences and mood disorders 
    In collaboration with Dr. Tallie Z. Baram, UCI Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and director of the campus’s Conte Center, Yassa’s lab is leveraging cutting-edge imaging techniques to learn how early-life experiences influence brain development and how certain stressors can increase vulnerability to disorders, including depression.
  • Exploring brain changes in mothers grieving the loss of a child
    In another collaboration with Baram – and with help from mothers in a local grief support group – Yassa’s team is uncovering scientific truths behind a difficult question: How is brain circuitry altered in mothers grieving the sudden loss of an adult child? 

Here’s more detail about those mothers.

A parent who turned her grief into positive action

If you’re an Orange County resident, you might be familiar with Beth Krom – a six-time member of the Irvine City Council who later served two terms as mayor of the city. What you probably don’t know is that this very public figure suffered an immense personal tragedy. Krom’s son, Noah, died in a fall in Santa Barbara just one week before his college graduation.

Krom turned her grief into positive action. First she formed a support group, Healing Hearts, to help other mothers deal with the devastating grief of losing a child. Later, she took an even bolder step to help the scientific community better understand the ways a parent’s brain can be permanently altered by losing an adult child.

Based on her close, decadeslong affiliation with UCI, Krom connected with several of the university’s neurobiology experts, including Baram and Yassa. She offered to help in any way she could to advance the scientific community’s knowledge of how losing an adult child impacts a parent’s brain chemistry – which could lead to a better understanding of the permanent changes that affect those grieving, potentially leading to more effective public policies, better support for families and improved methods of treatment.

Yassa invited Krom and the other mothers in her Healing Hearts group to UCI to allow his team to assess the physiological effects they’d experienced since losing their children. Their joint efforts are already helping to provide answers about the brain’s response to this type of trauma.

“Parents who’ve lost children don’t have an advocacy community. There isn’t even a name for losing a child, the way we call someone a widow or widower when their spouse has passed. I’m hoping UCI will become that national source spearheading research and advocacy for people experiencing the grief of losing a child. And based on the dedication I’ve seen from Dr. Yassa and the other researchers here, I’m confident that UCI will play that role for our cause.” – Beth Krom, former two-term mayor of Irvine

An opportunity for you to join the cause

Yet another way Krom is trying to advance the science behind the brain’s response to personal tragedy is through financial giving. Her parents, Irv and Elaine Weinstein, made a monetary contribution in the name of their grandson to help fund Yassa’s research on grief. The insights gained so far would not have been possible without their generosity.

You can also support Krom’s cause – and the cause of every person suffering from depression. Make a donation, and partner with UCI to accelerate life-changing research that improves the world.