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Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Clinical Studies and Research Projects

Research Areas of Interest

The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health is committed to improving understanding of disease, enhancing treatment options, and working to prevent mental illnesses. You can help by participating in clinical research.


Research focuses on a wide range of substance use disorders (alcohol, nicotine, and opioids). Research areas include study of programs that enhance service delivery models improving treatment retention, and adherence; research on the neurobehavioral effects of low-nicotine products; translational neuroimaging research aimed at understanding the underlying mechanisms of SUDs; piloting electronic cognitive behavioral health interventions, and interventions to enhance abstinence in at risk populations (e.g. transplant patients). Researchers also conduct studies to understand the effect of opioids on maternal-infant bonding and to address sleep comorbidities that affect relapse potential. Researchers also have ongoing collaborations with faculty in Public Health Sciences through the Center for Research on Tobacco and Health and at University Park.

Attention and Behavior Disorders

Overall research goals of the team focus on advancing the understanding of the assessment, developmental course and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD) as well as dimensional measures such as irritability, aggression and callousness commonly seen in youth with these conditions. Research is specifically focused on how these disorders affect children, adolescents, and adults and adapting empirically supported treatments targeting children and their families to improve long term functioning. The team has ongoing collaborations with University Park researchers.

Autism Spectrum Disorders Research

Strengthened by a long-term collaboration with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, the Division of Autism services focuses its efforts on the underserved segments of the ASD population, striving to improve access to services, education and training of stakeholders, as well as the development of resources for and outreach to communities. A primary focus of research for the team is centered on the utilization of technology to scaffold meaningful community participation for adults with ASD, particularly those in non-urban communities. Additionally, team members work on the development and assessment of efficacious interventions, as well as the implementation of effective interventions with community providers and schools. Finally, collaborations with Public Health Sciences has resulted in research examining physical and mental health associations and outcomes for adolescents with ASD in regard to healthcare utilization.

Behavioral Neuroscience

Behavioral Neuroscience research uses a variety of technologies to assess the neuro- and psycho-physiological processes underlying human behavior, including functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRs), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), EEG, event-related brain potentials (ERPs), facial electromyography, affect modulated startle response, skin conductance, heart rate, heart rate variability, eye tracking and ecological momentary assessment (EMA). The team has ongoing collaborations with researchers at University Park.

Clinical Assessment Research

Clinical Assessment research at the department focuses on the clinical evaluation of suicide risk factors and diagnostic psychopathology. Faculty investigate comorbid learning, emotional, behavioral and somatic problems in children with autism, ADHD and other mental health disorders. Research also examine differences in characteristics between diagnostic groups (e.g., demographics and medication use) and developing and assessing the validity of diagnostic instruments.

Health Services, Behavioral Health Integration and Quality Improvement Research

Research faculty address a wide range of topics that are tailored to enhance the overall quality, range and effectiveness of the clinical services provided. Research areas include:

  • Behavioral Health integration: Understanding the challenges to integrating mental health services within the primary care and specialty pediatrics clinics to diagnose children and adolescents with anxiety disorders; implementing clinical treatment programs to identify alternate therapies for depression and; implementing patient navigation services and integrating mental health services within cancer care.
  • Quality improvement and Health services: Evaluating effectiveness of ECT treatment for catatonia; adapting administrative strategies for reducing inpatient admission times and improving readmission rates in inpatient Psychiatric and transplant surgery and GI/Hepatology patients with comorbid SUD; evaluating causes for short-term (less than 72 hours) admissions in psychiatric units and identifying viable alternate options ; methods to improve patient-interaction and provider-input for implementing recovery-oriented care; improving diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses by implementing empirically tested measurement-based care system and evaluating implementation efficiency including soliciting and analyzing patient, care-giver and provider feedback.

Molecular Neuropharmacology

Dysfunctional muscarinic receptors have long been implicated in various psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. It is known that there are multiple distinct allosteric sites on these receptors and ligand binding to these sites effect subtle and useful modulation of CNS receptor activity. The research focus of Dr. Ellis’s laboratory is to identify defining interactions between allosteric ligand binding to muscarinic receptors that can lead to more effective pharmacological treatments for these disorders. They have recently demonstrated that the receptors are oligomeric, composed of four identical subunits. The data support a model in which the allosteric ligand gallamine binds with lowest affinity to a subunit that has bound the orthosteric ligand N-methylscopolamine, highest affinity to the subunit diagonally across from that subunit, and intermediate affinity to the other two sites (see model). Ongoing studies are developing bivalent allosteric-allosteric ligands that will simultaneously bind to sites within a subunit or across subunits, thereby eliciting novel pharmacological effects.

Mood Disorders Research

Mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar, presents in a wide variety of ways and may have multiple etiologies. The Mood Disorders Group studies the link between clinical phenotype and biology underlying bipolar and depressive disorders. Specifically, the group aims to identify markers that inform predilection, course of illness and treatment response through the study of genetic, biological, neurophysiological and behavioral factors that correlate with clinical phenotype and outcome. Using the tools of translational research, the group is currently studying the relationships among mood and topics such as cognition and decision-making, circadian rhythms and chronobiology, inflammation, mitochondrial function and stress hormones.

Neuronal Modeling

Research focuses on the cellular mechanisms of schizophrenia with the aim to identify cellular biomarkers that can in turn facilitate the development of novel and much needed diagnostic assays for this disease. As a first step towards this goal, Dr. Bellon has developed a unique cellular model of the disease, called Monocyte-derived neuronal cells (MDNCs). Neuronal characterization of schizophrenia has been hindered by the difficulty in getting access to neuronal cells for in vitro study. Dr. Bellon has developed a patented protocol to transdifferentiate circulating monocytes isolated from blood samples of patients into neuronal cells. This process takes a mere 20 days (as opposed to months for other stem cell differentiation protocols) and produces developing neurons that behave like neurons during early stages of development in terms of structural plasticity, expression of neuronal markers and electrical conductivity. These novel cell types called MDNCs, are ideal for studying disorders of neuronal development associated with multiple genetic variations like schizophrenia and Autism spectrum disorders. Using these novel cell types, Dr. Bellon aims to identify biomarkers and use those to develop a robust diagnostic assay to detect schizophrenia. Dr. Bellon has an on-going collaboration with researchers at University Park and University of Maryland, College Park.

Program Development, Education and Training Research

Faculty at the department are engaged in understanding the factors and challenges involved in implementing new programs as well as in evaluating the impact of existing education and training endeavors aimed at developing strategies to enhance the learning experience of trainees as well as examining the effectiveness of educational services provided for patients.

Research into the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH)

Penn State Health’s Community Health Needs Assessment identified three pressing health issues that impact residents of the communities Penn State Health serves, one of which is behavioral health – mental health and substance use disorders. Addressing access to care and social determinants of health were identified as cross-cutting strategies needed to improve health outcomes across all three priority areas. The department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health is committed to addressing these disparities and faculty are conducting research in an effort to collect patient-level information in social determinants of health, the social and environmental conditions that affect access to care. Inter-departmental collaborations include developing an SDoH assessment tool tailored for Penn State Health’s electronic medical record that will enable standardized SDoH data collection across the health system’s clinical practice sites, identifying factors that impede as well as those that support patient-provider willingness to communicate sensitive social influence information during clinical encounter, and outlining the intensity and variability of community participation of adults with autism spectrum disorder.

Sleep Research

Overall research goals of the Sleep Research & Treatment Center currently focus on advancing the understanding of the diagnosis, phenotyping, developmental course, sequelae and treatment of sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea as well as sleep health dimensions such as short sleep duration, sleep variability, circadian misalignment or excessive daytime sleepiness commonly associated with sleep disorders but also independent contributors to adverse health outcomes. Research is specifically focused on how sleep and circadian disturbances impact children, adolescents and adults in terms of cardiometabolic health, brain health and behavioral health. Another interest of the group is the phenotype-matching of evidence-based treatments to improve sleep, alertness and long-term health outcomes. The group has an ongoing collaboration with researchers in Public Health Sciences, at University Park and the Heart and Vascular Institute.

Contact Us

For more information about psychiatry research projects, email