Department of Psychiatry
Penn Behavioral Health

Penn Mental Health AIDS Research Center (PMHARC)

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Center Overview

Penn Mental Health AIDS Research Center (PMHARC) Overview

The overarching theme of the Penn Mental Health AIDS Research Center (PMHARC) at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) is to transform how individuals with comorbid mental illness and HIV/AIDS are treated and managed by developing innovative, interdisciplinary, and integrative approaches to optimize psychiatric, behavioral, and medical outcomes and achieving a better understanding of the biological, psychological, and behavioral mechanisms underlying these combined illnesses and treatments. A substantial body of work links psychiatric disorders to acquisition of HIV infection, accelerated immune dysfunction, poor access to HIV care, and poor adherence to antiretroviral treatment once in care.  Yet, there is a relative paucity of evidence-based interventions focused on the combined treatment of mental illness, HIV/AIDS, and related medical co-morbidities, and relatively little work in determining the relationships between mental health treatment and HIV/AIDS disease and understanding the underlying biology.  PMHARC seeks to stimulate novel approaches and strategies to address these problems by providing mentoring and resource support for both new and established investigators choosing to study comorbid mental illness and HIV/AIDS, in part through innovative pilot studies.

The PMHARC has 5 Specific Aims, which are closely aligned with the mission of the NIMH and the Division of AIDS Research. These are to:

  1. Establish an organizational structure and build capacity at Penn/CHOP that will foster innovative, interdisciplinary and synergistic basic, clinical, behavioral, and translational research collaborations and programs around the central theme of mental illness/AIDS to facilitate studies across the life cycle, including children, adolescents, pregnant women, adults, and the geriatric population.

  2. Create shared Core research resources that will facilitate the conduct of novel, integrative approaches to the simultaneous treatment and management of mental illness and HIV/AIDS.

  3. Promote the recruitment and professional development of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral trainees, as well as junior and senior faculty, in pursuing new research programs focused on outcomes in HIV-infected mentally ill patients, with special focus on engaging more under-represented minorities and women in Center activities and enhancing the cultural competency of Center studies.

  4. Stimulate and fund pilot research studies in support of new opportunities for extramural funding in areas related to the central theme of the Center.

  5. Contribute to the scientific productivity and impact of the NIMH HIV/AIDS Research Center Program by specifically focusing on the mentally ill and promoting collaborative research among other Centers.

Center Description and Mission

PMHARC’s core mission and integrating theme is to implement innovative studies to transform how people with both mental illness (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], cognitive dysfunction, and substance abuse) and HIV/AIDS are treated and managed to optimize psychiatric, behavioral, and medical outcomes and achieve a better understanding of the biological, psychological, and behavioral mechanisms underlying these combined illnesses and treatments. Center investigators study a set of common variables to develop and evaluate innovative, integrated treatments for comorbid mental illness and HIV/AIDS: 1) neurocognitive functioning; 2) adherence to treatment; 3) drug-drug interactions; and 4) a common set of biomarkers to assess the status of psychiatric disease, HIV/AIDS, and comorbidities, including markers of immunity and metabolism. Through the unique research infrastructure of its 6 Cores, PMHARC assembles and manages the resources required to stimulate novel, interdisciplinary, and integrative strategies for the combined management and treatment of comorbid mental illness and HIV/AIDS.

PMHARC will identify new investigators (those not yet R grant PIs) in comorbid mental illness/AIDS and encourage well-established investigators in these areas to transition to integrative mental illness/AIDS research. This will create new collaborative relationships and stimulate new research directions. PMHARC will merge Penn/CHOP’s outstanding research strengths in mental illness and HIV/AIDS to pursue innovative, integrated treatments for these comorbid disorders.