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Medicine & Science
University of Texas Medical Branch
News Release
Friday, October 26, 2012

UTMB psychiatrist wins international prize for research on mood disorders
in children and adolescents

Up until about the last decade, there were little data on the efficacy and safety of the medications commonly used to treat children and adolescents with mood disorders. Because of this, physicians had to rely on what they knew about how such drugs worked in adults when advising their use in pediatric situations.

Dr. Karen Wagner, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has sought to correct the dearth of evidence-based prescribing for children by focusing her research over the last decade on randomized, placebo-controlled trials of the major drugs used to treat pediatric depression and bipolar disorder.

Because of this comprehensive body of work, which has changed the basis for pediatric mood disorder treatment worldwide, Wagner has been selected as the co-recipient of the Colvin Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Mood Disorders Research by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. She will accept her honor at the organization’s National Awards Dinner in New York tonight. She is among eight scientists from across the globe being honored by the organization at its 25th annual awards event.

“This is the largest prize in psychiatry,” said Dr. Robert Hirschfeld, chairman of the department of psychiatry at UTMB. “It has never before been given to a child psychiatrist.”

“Her work has really changed how children are now treated for these disorders,” said Hirschfeld, who noted that Wagner is considered one of the most prominent child psychiatrists in the country.

Wagner’s research included the anticonvulsant drugs oxcarbazepine (Trileptal) and divalproex (Depakote), the antipsychotic drug risperidone (Risperdal) and the mood stabilizer lithium for treatment of bipolar disorder in children. She also studied the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors escitalopram (Lexapro), citalopram (Celexa) and sertraline (Zoloft) for the treatment of pediatric depression.

One of the most surprising findings, she said, was that divalproex, which is very effective for treating bipolar disorder in adults, does not work for children in the same way.

“That was a truly unexpected finding,” said Wagner.

Wagner and her colleagues found that risperidone was significantly more effective than the traditional mood stabilizers for children with bipolar disorder, but side effects like weight gain were a concern.

Wagner’s research on treating children with mood disorders has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Archives of General Psychiatry and the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Wagner is the Marie B. Gale Professor and vice chairwoman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at UTMB. She has served in many leadership positions in professional organizations and has been a member of the National Advisory Mental Health Council of the National Institutes of Health. She is editor of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry’s Child and Adolescent section and president-elect of the Society of Professors of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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