The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Names Top 10 Discoveries of 2013 by NARSAD Grantees

Posted: February 4, 2014

Contact: Nadine Woloshin
212-843-8041 / 917-699-9456

For Immediate Release

Top Findings Decode Brain Mysteries with 3D and May Herald New Treatments For Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Panic Disorder and Schizophrenia

NEW YORK CITY (January 29, 2014)—The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation today announced the top 10 Discoveries of 2013 by NARSAD Grantees, which provide new insight into the mysteries of the brain and potential treatments for people with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD and panic disorder. The discoveries in basic research, new technology, next generation therapies and early intervention ranged from findings showing the brain adds 1,400 new neurons a day throughout a person’s lifetime to the identification of brain activity that predicts whether people with serious depression will respond better to antidepressants or psychotherapy.

“We are entering the golden age of brain research,” says Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., President & CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, noting that 2013 was a year of highly significant advances such as CLARITY, which provides scientists with high resolution 3-D images of the brain. “The top 10 findings of 2013 highlight the kind of scientific work that will help us understand, treat and cure the mental illnesses that affect one in four people. Because federal funding for research is steadily declining, private funding is required to drive the kind of high risk, high reward research that changes lives.”

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which funded 225 NARSAD Grants with $17 million in 2013, raises money to fund cutting-edge research for the understanding, early detection, treatment, prevention and cure of mental illness. It has awarded over $300 million in NARSAD Research Grants to more than 3,700 scientists around the world since 1987. The following are the top 10 discoveries of 2013 by former and current NARSAD Grantees:

Steady Stream of New Neurons in the Brain May Keep Depression at Bay:
In 2013’s top finding, NARSAD Grantee Kirsty Spalding, Ph.D., and a team at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm quantified—for the first time—the number of new neurons generated in adult brains. Using an innovative method to carbon date the birth dates of neurons in the human hippocampus—an area of the brain that is key to memory and learning, and plays a role in the development of depression—Dr. Spalding and team were able to identify the number of new neurons produced. She found more than one-third of neurons are renewed throughout life; approximately 1,400 new neurons are added each day during adulthood, a rate that declines only modestly with age. The research furthers the idea that new neurons support cognitive functions throughout life, reinforcing the possibility of enhancing this process to treat psychiatric illnesses.

New Biological Depression Trigger and Treatment Target:
Millions of people take antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) to compensate for abnormally low levels of the signal-carrying chemical serotonin, which scientists have long associated with depression. Leading a team of researchers at Yale, NARSAD Grantee Marina Picciotto, Ph.D., discovered that a different signaling chemical, or neurotransmitter, called acetylcholine may be central in causing depression. This work leads to a new hypothesis that it is the disruption of acetylcholine, and not serotonin, which sets depression in motion. While altering levels of serotonin may treat symptoms for some patients, targeting acetylcholine disruption may be a way to treat the root cause of depression. Further research studies will be undertaken to determine if medications targeting acetylcholine are more effective in treating depression and help people who do not respond to SSRIs.

Unlocking Mystery of how Antidepressants Work Offers Hope for Improved Depression Treatment:
Building on findings from stem cell research in 2011 that helped explain how the brain can regenerate, NARSAD Grantee Hongjun Song, Ph.D., and researchers at the Institute for Cell Engineering at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have discovered a specific protein that helps electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and antidepressant medications work. It was known that these therapies work by stimulating stem cell development in the brain, but it was not known how. Through a sophisticated series of experiments and analyses, they identified the protein produced by the sFRP3 gene that regulates neural stem cells and the creation of new neurons. The results of this new work may enable predictive tests of an individual’s likely response to antidepressant treatment based on their genetic code as well as provide a new target for the development of improved treatments.

New Technology Enables Discovery of Novel Way to Reduce Anxiety Symptom:
NARSAD Grantee Rene Hen, Ph.D., of Columbia University Medical Center led a group of researchers who may have found a way to reduce anxiety in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder without negatively affecting the ability to learn. Using a cutting-edge technology called Optogenetics, which allows scientists to selectively activate neurons in the brain and observe the corresponding behavior, the researchers discovered selective activation of the dentate gyrus, a portion of the hippocampus, can reduce anxiety without affecting learning. These findings indicate it may be possible to relieve anxiety in people with anxiety disorder by targeting the ventral dentate gyrus with medication or deep brain stimulation without affecting their ability to learn.

3D Imaging Technology Promises Breakthroughs in Brain Research:
NARSAD Grantee Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., led a team at Stanford in developing CLARITY, a new imaging technology that provides high-resolution, 3D images of the brain that may lead to new insights into brain structure and function. Rendering the brain “transparent,” CLARITY makes it possible for scientists to simultaneously look at “the big picture” and fine details of the brain’s complex fine wiring and essential features, including neurons, axons, dendrites, synapses, proteins and nucleic acid. The technology may shed light on the underlying causes of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and autism. For example, CLARITY revealed an unusual pattern of “bridging” connections in post-mortem clinical samples from the brain of an autistic patient.

Early Warning Signs of Schizophrenia:
People who are diagnosed with schizophrenia often go through a “prodromal” phase, a period of time where they exhibit mild symptoms for weeks or years before developing full blown psychotic symptoms. Using neuroimaging, NARSAD Grantee Scott A. Schobel, M.D., of Columbia University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry discovered that elevated levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the hippocampus region of the brain may cause the transition to psychosis in people at high risk for developing schizophrenia. The findings strongly suggest that increased glutamate activity can be an early warning sign for schizophrenia and that controlling glutamate levels in high-risk individuals or people in the early stage of illness may be an effective preventive and/or therapeutic strategy.

Behavioral Therapy Program Helps People with Mental Illness Lose Weight:
Over 80 percent of people with serious mental illness are overweight or obese, often because antipsychotic medications increase appetite and cause weight gain. NARSAD Grantee Gail L. Daumit, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University led Project Achieve, the first weight loss clinical trial with people with serious mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, to account for cognitive and behavioral challenges present in mental illness. The study had almost 300 participants who used an average of three psychotropic medications each and found that people with serious mental illnesses can lose weight and keep it off through a modified lifestyle intervention program.

Potential Breakthrough for Schizophrenia:
Working with mice that were genetically engineered to have very low N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor activity in the brain, a condition suspected to be linked to the negative symptoms of schizophrenia—decreased motivation, lack of attention, emotional flatness, memory loss and social withdrawal—NARSAD Grantee Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., and his team of researchers at Harvard Medical School found that they were able to reverse schizophrenia-like symptoms in the mice by giving them D-serine, one of two molecules required to activate NMDA receptors. These findings support the theory that low activity in the brain’s NMDA receptors can cause some of the symptoms in people with schizophrenia, and indicate that the condition can be treatable and symptoms may be reversible. If D-serine based treatments can be developed for use in people, this could prove to be a breakthrough in the treatment of schizophrenia.

Brain Scans May Guide Choice of Antidepressants vs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Treat Depression:
Using PET scan imaging, NARSAD Grantee Helen S. Mayberg, M.D., and colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University identified specific activity in the right anterior insula of the brain that can potentially predict whether people with major depressive disorder (MDD) will better respond to an antidepressant medication or psychotherapy. By looking at the pre-treatment PET scans of all patients who responded to either therapy, researchers found lower-than normal activity in this brain region in people who benefited from cognitive therapy, and higher than normal activity in people who benefited from antidepressants. The data clearly suggested that the decision whether to treat patients with antidepressants or cognitive therapy may be based on an individual patient’s biology rather relying solely upon the evaluation of behavioral symptoms.

MRI Brain Scans May Help Diagnose Depression in Preschoolers:
In a first-of-its-kind study, NARSAD Grantees Joan L. Luby M.D., and Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, used functional MRIs to compare highly detailed images of activity in the amygdala--region of the brain that controls emotional processing and regulating--in 23 non-medicated preschoolers (ages four to six) with depression and 31 preschoolers who were not depressed as they looked at pictures of faces with happy, sad, fearful and neutral expressions. Unlike their non-depressed peers, the scans of preschoolers with depression showed more activity (blood flow) in the amygdala--regardless of the facial expression they providing the earliest evidence yet of changes in brain function in young children with depression. The findings could lead to ways to identify and treat depressed children earlier, potentially preventing problems later in life.

About the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (formerly known as NARSAD or the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression) raises funds to invest in cutting-edge research projects to understand, treat, and ultimately prevent and cure mental illness. Since 1987, the Foundation has awarded over $300 million in its NARSAD Research Grants to more than 3,700 scientists around the world. Research projects are selected by the Foundation’s Scientific Council comprised of 146 leading experts across disciplines in brain and behavior research. Funded through private contributions, the Foundation invests 100% of donor contributions for research directly into its NARSAD Grants. For more information, visit