Using New Technologies, Insight Gained to Improve Treatment of Psychiatric Illness

Amit Etkin, M.D., Ph.D. expert in depression research
Amit Etkin, M.D., Ph.D.

A team of researchers at Stanford University utilized non-invasive brain stimulation and simultaneous brain imaging (fMRI) to clarify how major brain networks coordinate information processing. Their findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on November 18th, provide insight to improve brain stimulation treatments for depression and other psychiatric illnesses where poorly regulated information processing is known to be a driving aspect of the illness.

2012 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Amit Etkin, M.D., Ph.D., working with Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., a former NARSAD Grantee and member of the Foundation’s Scientific Council and other colleagues, sought to understand the causal mechanisms by which major brain networks coordinate information processing. The researchers tested a long-held theory about how three regions in the human brain interact to generate higher functions including cognition, attention, working memory and decision-making. To do this, they stimulated parts of the network with transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and then observed the results with fMRI brain scans. Their work provides the first direct evidence of how the process works in the brain.

One of the mechanisms identified by the researchers is located in the area used to focus rTMS treatments for depression. rTMS is a non-invasive technology that uses electrical and magnetic simulation to modulate brain circuits. It was pioneered by Mark S. George, M.D., of the University of South Carolina, with the support of NARSAD Grants in 1996 and 1998 for use in the treatment of resistant depression. TMS was approved by the FDA for this use in 2008. The new evidence garnered by the Stanford researchers could help make rTMS more effective.

“These findings significantly advance our understanding of the causal mechanisms by which major brain networks normally coordinate information processing,” the researchers reported. “Given that poorly regulated information processing is a hallmark of most neuropsychiatric disorders, these findings provide a foundation for ways to study network dysregulation and develop brain stimulation treatments for these disorders.”

Read an abstract of the research paper.

Read an article in the L.A. Times about these new findings.