The University of Maryland received a $3.4 million grant in March from the National Institute of Mental Health for a five-year study to research the causes pathological anxiety and depression in college students.

“Anxiety disorders and depression are common and often difficult to treat,” psychology professor Alex Shackman wrote in an email. “Individuals with a more neurotic-anxious disposition are particularly vulnerable to these debilitating psychiatric disorders.”

University President Wallace Loh said he believes this kind of work in the social sciences is “terribly important.”

“A large grant to study causes of depression and anxiety, which is a very major issue these days — a lot of people who seek counseling are for issues relating to anxiety and depression … to be able to do research and have more efficient ways of dealing with those issues, I think that is precisely the kind of stuff that social scientists should be looking at,” Loh said.

Shackman, who will lead an international team of researchers in this study, wrote that although neurotic-anxious disposition, a high-risk nature, is an established risk factor, it is difficult to interpret what links it to psychopathology.

“This is a big deal; we know that these kinds of emotional disorders impose a staggering burden on public health,” he wrote in an email. “Major depression is a bigger burden on public health than cardiovascular disease or cancer.”

In the United States and Europe, anxiety disorders, Shackman wrote, are the most common mental illnesses, and current anxiety treatments are “inconsistently effective or lead to significant side effects.”

Shackman’s research team will utilize brain imaging, mobile phone-based surveys, and clinical assessments, he wrote. An online questionnaire will screen more than 5,000 racially diverse young adults from this university and its surrounding community; 50 percent of the sample will be University of Maryland freshmen.

“Ultimately, this will enable us to recruit 240 young men and women from across the spectrum of [neurotic-anxious disposition], from very low to very high levels, and everything in between,” he wrote. “About half the sample will be high-risk, that is, individuals marked by elevated levels of [neurotic-anxious disposition], who are at greater risk of developing an anxiety disorder or depression.”

Once research participants are enrolled, researchers will use fMRI, a neuroimaging procedure, to combine brain networks involved in organizing states of fear and anxiety.

Participants will also complete mental health and stress baseline assessments, and researchers plan to follow these individuals for two and a half years, Shackman wrote. During the study’s follow-up period, researchers will use cellphone technology to measure participants’ mood and behavior as they go through their day. This technology, Shackman wrote, will text eight messages per day to participants’ cellphones for up to a week at a time.

“Each text message contains a link to a short, online survey, which will enable us to quantify mood, context — who are you with; where are you; what are you doing — and behavior, including behaviors that can promote the development of mental illness, like drinking by yourself to relax or spending too much time alone, isolated from friends and family,” he wrote. “During the two and a half year follow-up period, each participant will complete four one-week waves of this kind of mobile experience sampling.”

This data, Shackman wrote, will enable researchers to do three things. The first will be to open the door towards finding individual differences in disposition and risk.

“Basically, to do a better job answering the question, why are some people neurotic? Why are they prone to more intense or pervasive anxiety and worry?” he wrote.

Shackman wrote that the data from this research will also allow other researchers to further examine whether brain circuits contribute to mental illness development. This will help test the significance of stress.

Additionally, this project, Shackman wrote, will help researchers understand the real-world relevance of these brain circuits better.

“We’ve done a great job using fMRI and other techniques to identify circuits involved in fear, anxiety, and other clinically relevant emotions,” he wrote. “By linking brain imaging techniques with mobile phone based assessments, we can test whether, for example, someone whose brain is more reactive to threat in the scanner is also more sensitive to stressors and challenges in his or her daily life.”

Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, a psychology professor at this university, said this research is significant because the transition to college is a “very, very important” developmental transition.

“It’s the first time that they’re on their own, and it could be very anxiety-provoking,” Chronis-Tuscano said. “… it’s really important for us to learn about early predictors of negative outcomes … because that kind of information can help us to pin-point who might need additional support”

Shackman wrote that this research is a “potentially transformation opportunity.”

“Ultimately, we hope that it can guide the development of improved treatments for patients and their families,” Shackman wrote.