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RESEARCH IDEA

Internalizing problems are increasingly common in youth, associated with various adverse outcomes, and thought to constitute an early clinical stage of mental illness development. Disturbances in self-referential processing and associated neural circuits including the default mode network may be part of the neurobiological substrate for internalizing problems. As self-referential brain circuits have been implicated in the etiology of both affective and psychotic disorders, they represent important targets for preventative intervention. Mindfulness-based interventions have been found to be effective in a range of mental illnesses including internalizing disorders (i.e., anxiety and depressive disorders) and to modulate self-referential processing and related brain circuits. Taken together, these findings suggest that a mindfulness-based early intervention program may be particularly suited to mitigate internalizing problems and associated disturbances in self-referential processing and thereby, ultimately, slow or prevent the development of serious mental illness.

 

RELEVANCE

The large majority of mental illnesses develop before the age of 25 and many have a life-long impact on health and functioning. Early intervention is crucial to improve outcomes in serious mental illness and prevent long-term chronicity. Focus in mental health should thus be on the early stages of mental illness and on the development of preventative interventions that seek to curb mental illness as it develops. However, there is a paucity of early intervention options for youth with symptoms in the mild or subthreshold range. As a result, intervention is often postponed until more serious mental problems arise, thereby wasting much of the crucial window of opportunity for early intervention. The current research seeks to develop and test a neurobiologically-informed early intervention program for at-risk youth.

 

MAIN OBJECTIVES

The main aims of the proposed research are 1) to elucidate developmental trajectories and neural correlates of internalizing problems in at-risk youth and how these lead up to the manifestation of mental illness; 2) to clarify neurobiological mechanisms through which mindfulness-based intervention may effectuate reductions in internalizing problems; and 3) to develop a mindfulness-based early intervention program directed at internalizing problems in help-seeking youth (15 – 24 years of age) that will be tested in a randomized controlled trial conducted at the Radboud UMC Center for Mindfulness.

 

IMPACT

If the novel mindfulness-based early intervention program is found to be effective in reducing internalizing problems and associated disturbances in self-processing, this will offer an important intervention option to prevent or delay psychopathology in help-seeking youth. In addition, if our intervention proves effective, we will take advantage of emerging evidence supporting the efficacy of online mindfulness training to translate our intervention into an online application for the ZonMW-funded Mood and Resilience in Offspring (MARIO) platform, with the goal of reaching a broader group of at-risk youth.

 

MOTIVATION

As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, I am dedicated to elucidating the neurobiology of emerging mental illness and contributing to the development of novel interventions aimed at the prevention of mental disorders. I have received extensive training in neuroimaging and brain network analysis at the UMC Utrecht and as a post-doc at Harvard and MIT. Moreover, I have had the opportunity to investigate various groups of children and youth with an increased risk to develop mental illness. Going forward, my goal is to use current scientific insight on emerging mental illness to develop neurobiologically-informed preventative interventions that seek to slow of delay the development of mental illness in at-risk youth. I believe that my training, track record, and research network make me uniquely suited to successfully execute the proposed research.

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