Psych Tank: Bold Research Ideas Receive Rapid Funding

To address the growing need for effective, long-term treatment and prevention of depressive illness, the Frances and Kenneth Eisenberg and Family Depression Center launched the inaugural Psych Tank Funding Competition on September 19, 2022 at the University of Michigan’s Kahn Auditorium.

The Center’s first-ever live pitch event featured research teams from across the University of Michigan competing for up to $150,000 in funding to rapidly investigate innovative ideas in depression and bipolar disorder research. Competitors presented their ideas in front of a panel of judges and live audience. 

Did you attend the event?
Take the attendee survey and share your feedback.


“With the ever-increasing rise of depressive illness, mental health research is at a crossroads,” said Karen Dugas, Research Innovation Core Manager at the Eisenberg Family Depression Center. “There is a need for our field to think more broadly and more creatively as well as utilize the cutting-edge resources and research expertise available across the University of Michigan to address challenges in our field. Psych Tank is an opportunity to get innovative ideas into the spotlight and rapidly funded. Our aim is to get truly groundbreaking ideas off to a running start.”


The Psych Tank Funding Competition contrasts traditional funding opportunities that often rely on significant prior work. With a streamlined application process, the Psych Tank competition offers a low barrier to entry and a high reward for the winning teams.

Breakthrough Award Winners

Psych Tank Funding Competition Breakthrough Award Winnders

Three teams were selected by a committee to compete for the Breakthrough Awards based on the ingenuity of their ideas and research methods. Preference was given to applicants of interdisciplinary teams and projects focused on prevention.

First Place - $150,000 Breakthrough Award Winner
“You Are What You Eat: Food as a Risk Factor and Treatment for Depression”

Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D.
Co-investigators Joyce Lee, M.D., M.P.H., and Kendrin Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D.

The research project proposes to use ecological momentary assessment in individuals with moderate-to-severe depression to uncover how ultra-processed food intake may lead to a vicious cycle of worsening depression. 

Using wearable technologies (i.e., Continuous Glucose Monitoring, Actigraphy watches) the team will investigate the mechanistic contributions of glucose fluctuations and sleep disruptions in the association between ultra-processed food intake and depression and test an innovative approach of reducing depression through the delivery of meal kits composed of nourishing minimally processed foods through an industry partnership.

Second Place - $75,000 Breakthrough Award Winner
“Mental health care for ALL kids! What are we waiting for?”

Sandra Graham-Bermann, Ph.D.
Co-Investigators: Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, Ph.D. and Cecilia Votta, Ph.D.

Depression and anxiety pose serious challenges to children’s optimal development. While many children receive treatment, many more remain undiagnosed or are prodromal, meaning they have symptoms that do not reach the level of diagnosis. 

The research team will build upon Graham-Bermann’s successful Kids’ Club programs with the Mood Lifters model for adults. The new Mood Lifters for Kids (ML for Kids) program relies on state-of-the art intervention techniques and trained leaders who deliver education and planned activities that help children to experience and practice skills in small groups and at home.  The aim is to conduct an evaluation of whether children who participate in the ML for Kids program have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety after 12 weeks relative to those in the wait list comparison group.

Third Place - $50,000 Breakthrough Award Winner
“Rhythm and Blues: Changing the Clock to Breakthrough in Bipolar Disorder”

Leslie Swanson, Ph.D. 
Co-Investigators: Helen Burgess, Ph.D., Melvin McInnis, M.D.; and Sarah Sperry, Ph.D.

Disruption of sleep and circadian rhythms in bipolar disorder (BD) are the strongest indicators of
an imminent and acute episode of illness. The research team aims to test a strategic intervention that directly targets the circadian system disruptions observed in BD—low-dose afternoon supplemental melatonin plus time in bed scheduling. This is a low-burden option that can stabilize dysregulated sleep patterns, improves sleep, increases morningness, and normalizes circadian timing. Data collected in this study will be leveraged as pilot data for an NIH R01 proposal.

In addition to the Breakthrough Awards, three interdisciplinary research teams were awarded Seeds of Change Awards. Each project was given a mini-grant of $10,000 for their low-resource, high-impact research projects. Each project should be completed within 1 year of award.

Seeds of Change Awardees

Emily Bilek, Ph.D. and Hannah Becker, PhD Candidate, receive Seeds of Change award during Psych Tank funding competition.
Psych Tank Seeds of Change Award Winners
Jay Kayser, PhD Student, receives Seeds of Change Award at the Psych Tank funding competition.

“Novel Cognitive Training Video Game to Target - Subclinical Depressive Symptoms in Youth”

Hannah Becker, Ph.D. Candidate
Co-Investigators: Adriene Beltz, Ph.D.; Emily Bilek, Ph.D.; Kate Fitzgerald Ph.D.; and Christopher Monk, Ph.D.

This project will assess the use of a preventative, low-cost “video game” intervention to enhance cognitive control and improve self-regulation of depressive symptoms in anxious youth. The goal of the intervention is to prevent the worsening of depressive symptoms and reduce the risk of developing depression. The study will do a follow up on youth who have used the existing intervention to determine if the “video game” was useful in the prevention of the progression of depressive illness.

“Impact of Boarding on Children and Adolescents Who Require Inpatient Psychiatric Admission”

Victor Hong, M.D.
Co-Investigators: Jessica Bailey, NP; Alexander Rogers, M.D.

Emergency department visits for adolescents presenting with depressive symptoms have increased dramatically. Often the individuals warrant psychiatric intervention including inpatient admission. However, often these patients remain in the emergency departments for a significant amount of time resulting in a delay in appropriate care. This project seeks to examine the impact of these circumstances in order to design targeted interventions and advocate for increased availability of inpatient mental health services. 

"Empowered @ Home: Connected"

Jay Kayser, Ph.D. Student, School of Social Work and Department of Psychology
Co-Investigator: Xiaoling Xiang, Ph.D., MPhil, M.S.W.

Group-based teletherapy is an effective, low-cost, and accessible intervention when managing the impacts of depression and loneliness in homebound older adults. This project explores the feasibility and preliminary effects of virtual group therapy through the adaptation of Empowered@Home, an existing internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy intervention. This solution, if found effective, will assist in closing the digital divide for older adults.  

The inaugural Psych Tank event comes out of the Eisenberg and Family Depression Center’s Research Innovation Core, a new service aimed to help U-M investigators catalyze groundbreaking research programs and interdisciplinary collaborations through idea-generating events, workshops, research funding and tailored faculty support.
Psych Tank is just the beginning of what is on the horizon for the Center’s newest services for members. Any U-M faculty and learners interested in becoming a members can learn more and apply today.

Stay tuned to hear more about the incredible research to come from our Psych Tank funding competition winners. Join our Mailing List

About the Eisenberg Family Depression Center: Established in 2001, the Eisenberg Family Depression Center is the first of its kind devoted entirely to bringing depression into the mainstream of medical research, translational care, and community education. Today, the Center is at the forefront in changing the paradigm of how depression and related illnesses are understood and treated.
The goal of the Eisenberg Family Depression Center is to expand the scope of depression and mental health research in order to achieve effective, long-term relief for those suffering and their communities. The Center empowers researchers and advocates with resources, guidance, and support to help accelerate innovations in prevention and care that leads to improved mental health outcomes.