Houston voices

UH expert: Mental health research just as important in the time of COVID-19

There is research pointing to how COVID-19 changes the mental health status of those infected. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Researchers across every discipline are redirecting their work in order to study COVID-19. The well-being of our global community depends on it. While some are exploring vaccines for the respiratory illness (according to the Guardian, 78 strains of the vaccine are currently in the works), others are saying that researching mental health issues around the pandemic is an equally important undertaking.

Long-lasting and significant effects

"Rapid and rigorous research into the impact of COVID-19 on mental health is needed to limit the impact of the pandemic." The impact on the mental health of individuals may be long-lasting and significant, say experts in Lancet – Psychiatry journal.

There are countless mental health issues that are raised by the novel coronavirus and two major research thrusts. One explores the way isolation, social distancing and excess stress affects people. For instance, researchers are studying how individuals react when they are constantly bombarded with media and negative news stories.

The second is how the COVID-19 virus itself may break through neurological boundaries and cause changes to the mental health and well-being of those infected. Other coronaviruses have passed into the central nervous system, according to experts interviewed by CNN Health.

Still working

The range of articles emerging from this dark time show that researchers are working diligently behind the lines during the peak of this epidemic – hopefully within the confines of their "safe at home" or "shelter-in-place" orders.

In higher education, there are myriad articles published every day about how college students are coping. And there are thousands of very targeted, niche studies being undertaken, like how do hospitals protect the psychological well-being of nurses caring for COVID-19 patients?

Researchers with expertise in family life are conducting studies about how the crisis affects children and parents: "COVID-19 has far-reaching implications for children and parents. While I hope that something like this doesn't happen again in our lifetimes, it is an important time for us to study how differing levels of stress impact parenting," says Leslie Frankel, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Houston.

Feeling down?

There is research pointing to how COVID-19 changes the mental health status of those infected. In some cases, encephalopathy or a malfunction of the brain may occur along with the stress and anxiety that is suffered by someone infected with COVID-19.

Michael Zvolensky, Ph.D., distinguished professor in the department of psychology at University of Houston and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory and Substance Use Treatment Clinic, says even those without the disease may suffer: "Many people worry about infection risk. Anxiety is apt to be exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, including virus risk potential, severity of COVID-related symptoms, and social isolation, among others. Although anxiety about the pandemic is normal, certain individuals – specifically, persons high in sensitivity to stress, may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 related stress presently and even when the social distancing measures are loosened."

Slow going

While the disease spreads quickly, the research unfolds more slowly than most we would like. An article on the World Economic Forum about COVID-19 research reads: "People and institutions tend to have a certain inertia, and it's not easy to alter their speed or course. Working within a compressed timeline, we've had to make changes and accommodations in order to reach ambitious goals."

If you are thinking about taking your mental health research in a different direction now that the pandemic has firmly taken hold, the NIH and NSF can help you determine what proposals to submit. There are funds for this type of research, after all, it is timely and absolutely required during these uncertain times.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Sarah Hill is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Panelists from the University of Houston and Houston Methodist discussed tech transfer challenges and opportunities for academic innovators. Photo courtesy

Groundbreaking and disruptive innovations across industries are coming out of research institutions, and their commercialization process is very different from other startups.

An expert panel within Technology transfer discussed some of the unique obstacles innovators face as they go from academia into the market — like patenting, funding, the valley of death, and more.

Missed the conversation? Here are eight key moments from the panel that took place at the University of Houston's Technology Bridge on Wednesday, May 19.

This event was hosted by InnovationMap and University of Houston.

“If your technology can immediately impact some industry, I think you should license out your technology. But if you think that the reward is much higher and does not yet match something in the industry, you should go the high risk, high reward path of doing it yourself. That’s a much more challenging. It takes years of work.”

— Hadi Ghasemi, co-founder of Elemental Coatings and Cullen associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, says on how tech transfer usually happens via those two pathways. Ghasemi explains that it also depends on the academic's passion for the product and interest in becoming an entrepreneur.

“There’s a mismatch in that you can have a really clinically impactful technology but still not have money to develop it into a product.” 

— Rashim Singh, co-founder of Sanarentero and a research assistant professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, says on the different priorities from within academia and within the market.

“What I’ve seen is if you know you want to patent something, tell the right people early. Make sure you have the right players involved. Our tech office already has venture, Pharma, etc. partners that can help with the patent process.”

— Ginny Torno, administrative director of innovation and IT clinical systems at Houston Methodist

“You don’t need to be fully transparent about your technology. As a company, you need to have some secret sauce."

— Ghasemi says on the patent and paper publishing process. Academics are used to publishing their research, but when it comes to business, you need to hold some things close to the chest.

“One of the most important piece the UH Tech Bridge has provided is the wet lab space to develop these technologies a little further toward commercialization. … Wet lab is very precious space in Houston specifically because there isn’t much here.”

— Singh says on how important access to lab space is to the entrepreneur.

"“You’re starting to see more and more organizations that have innovation arms. ... There are a lot of focus on trying to make Houston another innovation hub, and I think there is more support now than even a few years ago.”

— Torno says on what's changed over the past few years, mentioning TMC3 and the Ion.

“Try to serve private capital as soon as possible. The grant money comes, and those are good and will help you prove out your technology. But once you have private money, it shows people care about your product.”

— Ghasemi says as a piece of advice for potential tech transfer entrepreneurs.

“The biggest gap is to arrange for funding — federal, private, etc. — to support during the valley of death.”

— Singh says on the struggle research-based startups, especially in drug discovery, faces as they fight to prove out their product and try to stay afloat financially.

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