Psychology professor seeks clues to psychiatric disorders in DNA

December 12, 2012 by Aaron Smith

Data, data everywhere. In genomics research, there is a data deluge, so innovative ways to analyze all that information will play a critical role in future breakthroughs.

Gitta Lubke, associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, is at the forefront of developing new to help find that are related to —and spur further research regarding individual patients' conditions.

"Understanding the biological causes of psychiatric disorders and their interplay with is a prerequisite of a successful, personalized approach to treatment," Lubke says.

The that Lubke and her colleagues use consist of very large numbers of genetic markers—the spots in DNA where can differ between people.

"The idea is to check whether more people with a disorder have, for example, 'A' rather than 'T' in a given spot than people without that disorder," Lubke says. "If so, you can look at whether that spot in the genome corresponds to a gene and then look at the protein that is coded and what it does."

The current approach is to test all genetic markers separately, requiring millions of tests, and to use a case/control variable for the disorder. "But that variable often doesn't do justice to something as complex as , for instance," Lubke explains. "Testing each genetic marker separately is not necessarily optimal."

Thus, she and her students are investigating alternative methods and comparing them to the standard approach. To support a project called "MRI: Acquisition of a Data Analytics Cluster for Computational Social Science," Lubke and several colleagues were also recently awarded a $452,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Lubke's other main project right now is a borderline personality study in collaboration with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands, where she received her Ph.D.

This collaboration gives her access to a very large data collection—the Netherlands Twin Register, which has been collecting data since the 1980s and recently added a biobank with genetic data and other biomarkers.

The borderline project includes a study on how best to model questionnaire data, a genome-wide search for relevant using standard methods, and the application of alternative methods.

Lubke's other projects with VU range from studies on internalizing and externalizing problems and well-being to a pilot program for graduate-student exchanges that allows a Notre Dame quantitative psychology student to study and research at VU while Notre Dame hosts two of VU's biological psychology students. Moving forward, Lubke hopes to secure additional funding to expand the program and to enhance the student experience by making housing and courses available to visiting students.

"International experience not only looks good on a CV," she says, "but also opens new horizons and offers ample opportunity to collaborate and network."

At Notre Dame, Lubke's research includes projects looking at resilience in later-life, with psychology professor Cindy Bergeman, and the validity and utility of a two-part system for personality disorder diagnosis, with principal investigator Lee Anna Clark, the William J. and Dorothy K. O'Neill Professor of Psychology.

"All of these projects are interesting and fun—my only problem is that I need to come up with a method to somehow stretch the 24 hours a day has," Lubke says.

"I really enjoy the process of discovering bits and pieces of answers, and putting them together. I guess I'd be pretty bored if answers had already been found to all questions. Of course, there's a good bit of frustration at times, but that's part of it."

Lubke takes great pride in being part of Notre Dame's impressive quantitative psychology program, from the far-ranging expertise of faculty to its collaborations with other colleagues inside and outside the department.

"Our faculty represents such a wide scope of different topics within quantitative methodology that you can always find an expert when faced with a specific question. This is a great advantage for students and faculty alike."

In the classroom, Lubke's teaching is directly related to her research. She is currently updating her Mixture Modeling course, for example, to include new approaches to modeling complex human behavior.

"That way students can get new ideas how best to analyze their data, and it benefits my own research."

Lubke says she is inspired by her experience as a student-teacher when she attended the University of Amsterdam. To address low scores on stats exams, the institution assigned all undergraduates to small work-groups that met several times each week.

"The groups were led by seniors like myself, and our task was to design small, practical and fun exercises that helped students understand stats and actually like it," she recalls. "Figuring out a didactic way of explaining concepts in small steps was the dominant theme, and it's still central in my teaching."

Explore further: Novel method combats malaria drug resistance

Related Stories

Novel method combats malaria drug resistance

April 5, 2012
Researchers from the University of Notre Dame's Eck Institute for Global Health developed a "gene chip" to contribute to the identification of malaria drug resistance, an effort that will allow for real-time response in modified ...

Undergraduate students publish their clinical research in major scientific journal

October 13, 2011
A novel course offering in the University of Notre Dame’s College of Science has enabled a group of undergraduate students to have their research on a rare disease published in a leading scientific journal.

Borderline personality, bipolar disorders have similar unemployment rates

December 11, 2012
Unemployment poses a significant burden on the public no matter what the cause. But for those who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, chronic unemployment is often coupled with significant health care costs. A ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.