Psychiatric Epigenomics

Our mission is to gain insights into the neurobiology of normal and diseased human development, including the genome-wide distribution and regulation of epigenetic markings that serve as a “molecular bridge” linking our genes to the environment.

We know that many psychiatric and medical conditions are not likely to be rooted in faulty genetics alone. We explore the cellular and molecular pathology of the human brain (collected postmortem or from animal models and cell culture system) to deepen our insights into the underlying mechanisms of disease.

The mission of both our division and The Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is to explore epigenetic determinants of genome organization and function as it pertains to the healthy and diseased brain. We focus on these major areas of promise:

  • Brain epigenome mapping across the lifespan
  • Chromatin regulators in mouse models of psychiatric disease
  • Epigenetic biomarkers, including in peripheral tissue
  • Brain epigenome mapping across the lifespan
  • Neuronal genome integrity (Many of our brain cells stop dividing long before birth and then never again go through a cell division. We look to genome-scale mapping to explore how these neurons maintain genome integrity and adapt gene expression and function according to the various periods of normal development and aging.)
  • Novel epigenetic therapies: Exploring chromatin-based therapies in mouse models of autism, depression and psychosis.

Schahram Akbarian, MD, PhD, Chief of the Division of Psychiatric Epigenomics and Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist exploring epi- (Greek for “over,” “above”) genetic determinants of normal and diseased human brain development. His work includes epigenome mappings in specific cell types from the human brain (typically collected postmortem) and also in animal brain and cell culture systems. 

The epigenome is defined by a rich cache of highly regulated structural modifications of DNA cytosine and histone residues and variants that in concert define the three-dimensional structure of the genomic material in the cell nucleus, thereby providing a molecular bridge between genes and the environment.

Dr. Akbarian joined the Icahn School of Medicine and The Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai as a Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. He moved to Mount Sinai in 2012 from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where he had established a research program in psychiatric epigenetics and served as the director of the Brudnick Neuropsychiatric Research Institute. He has:

  • Developed methods and protocols to chart, on a genome-wide scale, epigenetic markings in specific cell types (including nerve cells) from the human and animal brain
  • Presented an epigenetic risk architecture for nerve cells from subjects diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia and related diseases
  • Studied mutant mouse models with altered histone methylation in brain chromatin, in order to explore novel avenues for the treatment of depression and psychosis
  • Explored epigenetic signatures in neurons that are unique to the human brain, setting us apart from other present-day primate species
  • Pushed the frontiers in human brain research, including the spatial arrangement of chromosomal loopings and other three-dimensional structures often referred to as “genome in 3D”

Dr. Akbarian studied medicine and conducted his thesis work on the central representation of the primate vestibular system at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany. He was trained in psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and in neuroepigenetics and neuroscience at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge and the University of California at Irvine.

He received the Klerman Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, the Judith Silver Memorial Award of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Outstanding resident Award of the National Institute of Mental Health and the Eva King Killam Award for Outstanding Translational Research of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. Dr. Akbarian has been a principal investigator on National Institutes of Health-funded research projects and grants since 2001 and published nearly 100 articles in scientific journals and book chapters. He is a member of professional societies such as the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) and presently serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF, formerly NARSAD), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members (Army STARRS). He serves on the editorial boards of various journals in the field, including Biological PsychiatryNeuropsychopharmacologySchizophrenia Bulletin, and European Neuropsychopharmacology.