Westmont Magazine Seeking a Cause and a Cure
Research on schizophrenia typically takes two forms: searching for causes of the disorder and working to develop effective treatments. Richard Josiassen ’69 does both. The director of the Arthur P. Noyes Clinical Research Center at Norristown State Hospital in Pennsylvania, he heads a team of researchers from around the world who puzzle over causes of the disorder while helping patients who suffer from the devastating illness.
On both fronts, there are many unknowns. “We do what we can to help people, but there is no cure, and the most common treatment is antipsychotic medication. We don’t yet know what causes schizophrenia. Compelling evidence suggests it’s a brain disease, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what happens. People with schizophrenia exhibit widespread brain abnormalities. For example, during early development, brain cells end up in the wrong places, and something goes awry in the intercellular mechanics. But are these causes or results of the disease?”
Rick believes schizophrenia is a multigene condition that may be triggered by trauma or certain environmental factors. He seeks answers at the molecular level, studying how genes are expressed in brain cells.
Since obtaining these cells is difficult, his research focuses on something very similar: olfactory neurons from the nasal passage. Neurons are the basic unit of the nervous system and include the nerve cell body and all its processes, so they yield a great deal of information.
A faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, Rick works with graduate students and fellows who study at the center. He has written more than 90 professional papers, and he served as deputy editor of the journal Biological Psychiatry for six years. He reaches out to lay audiences as well and speaks on mental health at a variety of churches.
“About one percent of the world’s population suffers from this frightening and demoralizing illness,” Rick notes. “Families can spend their life savings getting treatment for someone who is afflicted, but they have fewer and fewer places to turn for help. The managed health-care system has decimated treatment for chronic mental illness. Today the largest population of schizophrenics is held within the American justice system — in jail.”
Every day Rick comes in contact with some of the 700 patients at the state hospital where his center is based. Helping these people live worthwhile and productive lives motivates him to keep looking for a cause and a cure. Each year, he organizes a benefit concert featuring Grammy-winning groups, such as Ladysmith Black Mombazo and the Paul Winter Consort, and he invites the musicians to spend the day with patients.
A psychology major at Westmont, Rick earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and was awarded a National Institute of Mental Health fellowship in neuroscience. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rita Shaughnessy, a physician and psychologist who runs her own clinic and works some with Rick. His daughter, Rachel, will be a senior in high school in the fall. They belong to First United Methodist Church of Germantown, known for its local and international activism with ongoing projects in Haiti, Guatemala, South Africa, and Germantown itself. Rick wants to make a difference for people with schizophrenia and other mental disorders — and for all those who need help and healing in the world.