Meet Dr. Carol Tamminga
Psychiatrist in Dallas

Holder of the:
Lou and Ellen McGinley Distinguished Chair in Psychiatric Research
Communities Foundation of Texas [Inc.] Chair in Brain Science

Psychiatrist and researcher Carol Tamminga, M.D., Chairman of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern, leads her department with a very clear perspective: Psychiatric illnesses are diseases of the brain, not conditions of behavior.

“Whether patients are suffering from psychosis, depression, anxiety, or PTSD,” she says, “I’m always asking myself: How do we discover and treat the physical basis for this disease? At the same time, we have to keep in mind the psychological experience of illness, however. 

Dr. Tamminga specializes in treating psychotic illnesses, such as schizophrenia, psychotic bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. Epidemiologic studies suggest that in populations the size of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, there are at least 500 new cases of psychotic illness every year. Dr. Tamminga’s work is focused on both improving Dallas’s current systems of care for these patients and developing new ways to detect and treat their disease.

Focused on Early Detection and Treatment

She says that for people who develop psychotic illnesses, early and aggressive treatment can make all the difference in their ultimate function and quality of life. And the best early treatments combine medications with social support, teaching these patients healthy cognitive and social skills as well as resilience because they often have a hard time maintaining social networks and employment.

“People with psychosis can easily become isolated and socially ostracized,” Dr. Tamminga says. “They may get put away in a corner, sometimes in the corner of a state hospital, way out in the country.”

Dr. Tamminga and her team are trying to combat that state of neglect by establishing a new center for early psychosis at UT Southwestern – in partnership with community facilities and hospitals – where new psychosis patients can receive comprehensive support and the latest advances in treatment.

Research to Improve Diagnosis and Drugs

The heart of Dr. Tamminga’s work is research to improve diagnosis of these illnesses and to find new targets for drug development. Her group is the lead site of a national consortium that is developing biologic brain measures of psychotic illness, devising ways to diagnose these illnesses based on biology, not behavior.

“If a patient walks into the physician’s office with possible psychosis,” she says, “the physician can run some tests just like he or she would for diabetes or hypertension. That’s the goal.”

The group also conducts laboratory research to explore how the brain makes a hallucination or a delusion.

“This research is giving us an idea of what is happening at a cellular and synaptic level,” she says. It suggests that the best way to think of psychotic illness is as a disease of learning and memory. “It’s the opposite kind of learning and memory disorder as dementia,” she says. “In dementia, the cellular machinery for learning and memory is degenerating. We think that in psychotic illnesses the cellular activity is hyperactive.”

Finding the brain’s mechanisms for creating these symptoms opens up new opportunities to refine treatment.

“Once we understand the mechanisms in the brain, then pharmaceutical companies will be able to develop more effective drugs, perhaps with fewer side effects than our current options,” she says.

Meanwhile, Dr. Tamminga notes that for many people with psychotic illness, access to quality psychiatric care is an ongoing challenge.

“There is a shortage of psychiatrists in Texas, so we have been developing a substantial psychiatric training program, including new residency programs that combine psychiatry and neurology and psychiatry and internal medicine.”

The residency program at UT Southwestern is the largest in Texas and one of largest in the country. Dr. Tamminga says she’s proud to have the opportunity to train young psychiatrists to understand how the brain works and to be creative in thinking about how the brain supports psychiatric symptoms.

“We strive to be the place that makes every attempt to understand the biological basis of psychiatric illness in the context of expert psychological care so that our patients have the best chance at a high quality of life.”