April 16, 2019

Cumming School prof's work with young people could mean earlier schizophrenia diagnosis, treatment

Jean Addington honoured with international award for more than 30 years of research into this devastating disease

A researcher with the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine is being recognized internationally for a lifetime of work helping young people at risk of developing schizophrenia. Dr. Jean Addington, PhD, is this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Schizophrenia International Research Society (SIRS), a recognition the organization hasn’t granted since 2014.

Addington, also a professor and clinician, works with young people whose lives are on the brink of an often frightening shift. Many are experiencing their first episode of psychosis. Others may be exhibiting distressing symptoms that put them at risk of mental illness, including schizophrenia.

“My current work focuses on identifying youth who may have early signs of developing psychosis and designing treatments that might benefit them,” says Addington, who is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry. “These early troubling signs include feelings of being talked about or being watched, feeling that the world has become strange or unreal, confusion about what is real or imaginary, or a change in perceptions such as hearing things that others don’t seem to hear. There may also be a change in their social relations, decline in school or reduced work performance.” 

To conduct this research, Addington educates community agencies and health workers about the kind of young people her team wants to help. These agencies can identify young people who are exhibiting the early symptoms Addington describes, giving them the opportunity to participate in potentially life-changing research.

Addington’s studies, which often take years to complete and involve centres throughout North America, allow researchers to look for commonalities that might predict the onset of psychosis or even be identified as a mechanism of developing psychosis. Her studies also give the research team a chance to test different treatments in the hopes of someday circumventing the progression of the illness.

"We have developed and have been testing a range of psychosocial treatments that include cognitive therapy, social skills training, and exercise,” says Addington. “Hopefully, we will improve our ability to predict who may develop psychosis, and work toward interventions that might help these young people.”

As a PhD candidate who works closely with Addington, Dan Devoe says it’s clear how much she genuinely cares about the young people she meets through her research and clinical work. Devoe has been pursuing his PhD under Addington’s guidance for close to three years.

“Focusing on the field of early intervention gives us an opportunity to provide better outcomes for these kids in the future,” he says.

With Addington’s dedication and impressive history of service in mind, Devoe took it upon himself to nominate her for the SIRS award.

“I looked at the award list and saw there was a distinguished service award and thought Dr. Addington fit that profile the best,” he says, “so I nominated her. Seeing how much she’s done and her contributions through time, I thought she was the ideal person.”

Addington has been conducting schizophrenia research for more than 30 years. Her work is among the top one per cent in the world of cited research on the subject. She has participated in organizations such as SIRS since its inception and works passionately to help young students and trainees realize the careers they envision. Addington says it is rewarding to have this long-term commitment acknowledged.

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the University of Calgary consists of more than 165 scientists and clinician-scientists who are dedicated to advancing brain and mental health research and education. The Institute’s research strengths, in Brain and Behaviour, Neural Injury and Repair, and Healthy Brain Aging, are leading to a better understanding of the brain and nervous system and new treatments for neurological and mental health disorders.

The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education at the University of Calgary supports research and education into the early identification, prevention and treatment of mental illness, with a special emphasis on children, youth and emerging adult populations. The Mathison Centre was made possible by a $10 million investment from Ronald P. Mathison, and created by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Department of Psychiatry.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the university towards its Eyes High goals.