On Monday, the University of Michigan announced a $5 million donation from the Prechter family to advance bipolar disorder research at the University hospital and to support ongoing longitudinal studies of the illness.
In 2001, German-born automotive entrepreneur Heinz Prechter committed suicide after a long struggle with bipolar disorder. Today, his battle against bipolar disorder and the stigma surrounding it is continued by his wife, Waltraud Prechter, who founded the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund in November 2001.
Melvin McInnis, professor of Bipolar Disorder and Depression and the Principal Investigator and Scientific Director of the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund, met Waltraud Prechter in 2004 and has since, worked closely on the program. He described how important this donation is for the University.
“This is a major opportunity for the University and major opportunity for both students and other researchers to access this data and test ideas on it,” he said. “We are only limited to our creativity as to what kind of questions you could start to ask.”
Researchers with the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund work to understand interactions between individuals with the disorder and their environment as a way of developing new cures. Projects receiving support include stem cell research, studies of the microbiome and prediction of bipolar disorders through voice patterns.
John Gideon, doctoral candidate in Computer Science and Engineering, works on the PRIORI project supported by the fund. Gideon said the project aims to predict upcoming severe episodes of manic or depressed states based solely on characteristics in the patient’s voice.
“We’re hoping to be able to get a practical system that people can use,” he said. “We are hoping to move it into the later stages to have interventions on individuals and see if we can avert those negative effects from the patient’s perspective. Also, from a monetary insurance perspective, trying to keep people out of the hospital will lower costs overall for their care.”
Neuropsychology resident Joel Peterman echoed Gideon’s sentiments. He spoke on the phone from a conference site where he is presenting research on metabolic comorbidities like obesity negatively impacting individuals with bipolar disorder.
“With this study, we are able to engage the general community — the University of Michigan community, but also the broader Michigan state community,” Peterman said. “For me, it’s helpful in the sense that … I could track BMI’s over time and see how that superimposes on the trajectory of their cognitive functioning.”
Other projects are also in the works with the newly available funding. Amy Cochran, a post-doctoral research assistant professor in the Department of Math, is working to implement mobile technologies in bipolar disorder treatment.
“For someone like me, all of the research depends on the quality of the data that you have,” she said. “I think this generous gift will allow me to have better access to larger data sets, more detailed data sets, and I can be able to infer important information as it relates to bipolar disorder.”
Cochran’s project is currently using mobile technology to track and predict symptoms, then feed the information back to patients and better their clinical care. She said this level of interdisciplinary research is unique in her department.
“Long term, my goals are to continue to work in this area of psychiatry and work with these data sets that are generated through things like the Prechter study,” she said.
McInnis said the collaboration for the program has encompassed areas from cellular biology and psychology to mathematics and computer science. However, he said the most important collaborators are the patients with bipolar disorder.
“We are really grateful for the participant collaborators — the people with the illnesses that give up their time, give up themselves and really show a profound amount of dedication to working with us on this study,” he said.
Waltraud Prechter also emphasized collaboration as an essential component to successful research.
“That’s the future in my opinion,” she said. “You cannot be in silos anymore today, you need to work together. It’s a richer environment, it’s a better environment. The focus has to change, the paradigm has to change of how we do research today.”
Waltraud Prechter said her impetus for the foundation and recent funding came from the desire to destigmatize bipolar disorder.
“I’ve seen what it did my late husband who stigmatized himself because he came from a culture that did not recognize mental illness or thought it was something you could get rid of or control,” she said. “I think stigma will go away if we have good research, which in turn will have results for patients — applicable and effective results for patients so they can live a healthy life.”
Peterman also spoke about working to destigmatize mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. He said there is a common belief of physical and mental illness as two separate entities, and often, mental illness not being fully recognized.
“Years ago, cancer was something you didn’t talk about,” he said. “…There’s so much public information and public initiatives with cancer and cancer prevention now, hopefully we can do the same with bipolar disorder,” he said.
Looking to the future, Waltraud Prechter said she hopes the funding will allow the program to expand both nationally and internationally and continue its work against stigma. She said continued support of evidence-based research is a stepping stone to achieving it.
“I hope to see that we become the place for all research regarding bipolar disorder with all modalities and options available to people who have this illness,” she said. “We are talking about a place of hope, a place where research turns into results for patients — That’s what I really want.”