Students and faculty researchers progress in mental health-related projects

Here are some of FAU’s research projects from both faculty and students. Almost $2 million has been dedicated toward these studies.


FAU mental health researchers have receives nearly $2 million for their studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Photo by Alex Liscio

Daniel Sanchez, Contributing Writer

This issue is part of our special mental health issue in honor of National Suicide Prevention Month. View the whole issue here or on newsstands. 


Learning about mental health is a priority for FAU researchers –– so much so that almost $2 million have been dedicated toward related projects.  


FAU dedicated millions to the construction and research of the Brain Institute, which studies all aspects of human intelligence.

In 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) dedicated approximately $1.9 million to FAU for research funding both psychology and neuroscience. Researchers at FAU have a variety of goals, motives, and studies they’re working on to learn more about mental health, as around one in four college students are diagnosed with mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  

Mind over body?


Many people already assume that your mental health is related to your physical health, but FAU researchers are trying to quantify it by looking at the serotonin levels in your brain. 


An FAU research project studies the connection between the immune system and mental illness. The researchers observed that the moods, energy, and initiative of sick people was diminished, the same symptoms of depression. The researchers later uncovered that serotonin transporters, signals between the brain and the rest of your body that determines your mood, played a major role in this connection.

Brain Institute Executive Director Randy Blakely said the goal is not only to improve the wellbeing of the community, through medicinal solutions to depression, but to facilitate advances in research. 


For Nicole Baganz, another Brain Institute researcher, it aims to bring awareness to mental health. This issue is one close to her heart, with her sister having passed away due to a heroin overdose. She says she wants to “reduce the stigma of mental illness and spread accurate information into the world.”


Parenting and poor hearing


Another project by Brain Institute researcher Ali Danesh focuses on the relationship between parents’ mental illness and their children’s hearing impairment. His research is split up into three different projects:


  • Danesh is investigating the relationship between parents’ mental health in childhood and anxiety and depression for patients with hearing conditions. This research concludes that audiologists (doctors who study hearing) rehabilitating patients should screen them for parents’ mental illness, as this would indicate that further mental health services are needed. 
  • Throughout his studies, Danesh explores the correlation between parental separation/mental health in childhood and hearing impairment in adulthood. Danesh found that separation, which leads to poor parental mental health, was associated with increased sensitivity to sound in their kids.
  • Danesh’s research showed that physicians who offer hearing rehab should screen for suicidal thoughts in patients.


Danesh attempts to prove that mental health is important, and that it is especially vital having someone for support. Danesh feels that his research may provide many students with a “revised perception of suicidal thoughts.”


“I want to have a healthy community,” Danesh said. “Unlike other types of health issues, mental health is not obvious.”


Cats, kids, and cells


Alaina Tillman is a senior undergraduate researcher in Blakely’s lab at the Brain Institute. 


Tillman investigates how brain cells can respond to the inflammation caused by infections and sickness. She sees this as a unique window into mood disorders by tapping into the immune system and figuring out how to defend against influences that could cause depression.


Tillman is using her research to remove the stigma toward mental health, and possibly help in producing a medication to treat depression.


Maranda Streit is a postgraduate nurse practitioner (FNP-BC) completing her Doctor of Nursing Practice from FAU in December.


Maranda is working on a project for children with anxiety using HeartMath, a breathing technique children use to help with anxiety. She says the results have been promising, according to the responses of the children and their parents.


She hopes to recommend her treatment to pediatric offices and schools as an alternative to putting children on anxiety medications. 

Bryanna Streit is a post-graduate nurse practitioner completing her Doctor of Nursing Program from FAU in December.


Bryanna works at FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing’s Louis and Anne Green Center using toy interactive robotic cats to test a method of reducing aggressive behaviors and troublesome psychological symptoms of people with dementia. The cats provide companionship, much like an emotional support animal, which is meant to soothe the patient’s nerves.


Bryanna is interested in this topic because her grandmother had a similar issue and she wants to pursue non-invasive methods instead of medications and other treatments. Bryanna hopes adult day centers, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities will implement her findings.


Daniel Sanchez is a contributing writer of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].