Functional Neuroimaging – Mapping Psychiatric Illness

August 4, 2015 Brigham and Women's Hospital

The brightly colored areas represent brain activity in patients experiencing schizophrenic hallucinations.

Imagine being able to watch the brain in action – watching changes in brain activity when someone is thinking, feeling emotions, or performing certain tasks. Functional brain imaging (functional neuroimaging) does just that, allowing researchers to observe changes in the circuitry of a brain, non-invasively, under different conditions.

Functional brain imaging also is being used to understand which areas of brain circuitry are affected by psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis. Researchers hope to eventually use this information to improve diagnosis and tailor treatment for patients with psychiatric illnesses. Ultimately, the aim is to personalize treatment by looking at profiles or tests in individual patients and predict how someone will respond to a particular treatment or combination of treatments. This approach could even identify new treatment targets.

David A. Silbersweig, MD, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Co-Director of the Institute for the Neurosciences, describes how researchers in the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) are using functional neuroimaging to improve our understanding of psychiatric illness:

  • Schizophrenia – BWH researchers and colleagues have identified brain regions associated with hallucinations in patients with schizophrenia. Transcranial magnetic stimulation delivered to these areas of the brain has been shown in clinical studies to decrease the number of hallucinations in patients with schizophrenia.
  • Depression – In depressed patients experiencing anhedonia, a lack of interest or pleasure in normal activities, BWH researchers have determined that brain circuits related to motivation are less active.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder – BWH researchers are monitoring patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, before and after cognitive behavioral therapy, to identify the changes in brain activity that accompany successful treatment.

Want to learn more about functional neuroimaging?

On October 7, 2015, the public is invited to Discover Brigham, an event that will highlight the cutting-edge biomedical investigations of more than 3,000 researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Silbersweig will share additional insights on the intersection of technology, imaging, clinical trials, and psychiatric research during  a session on mental and behavioral health. Learn more or register.

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- Jamie R. 
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