Tackling Mental Illness Through Advanced Imaging Of Neural Pathways

Gary Boas
November 11, 2015
A team of researchers from MIT, MGH, McLean Hospital and Boston University have been awarded a grant to study depression and anxiety disorders using Human Connectome Project data collection protocols.

Anxiety disorders and depression are widespread among adolescents in the U.S., affecting as many as one in four 13 to 18 year olds. Determining the best course of treatment can be difficult, though, as we still don’t fully understand the biology of the disorders.

A newly funded study could offer new insights into the underlying biology, and thus help to improve the ways in which we approach anxiety and depression.

The Human Connectome Project (HCP)—a multi-institutional collaboration including the MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and others—has demonstrated since its launch five years ago an extraordinary ability to map the neural pathways in the human brain. Now, researchers at the Martinos Center and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT are, for the first time, applying techniques developed by the HCP to a specific disease population.

“Our understanding of the biological mechanisms of mental illness is still limited. This makes it very challenging to predict which treatment will work for which patient,” said Anastasia Yendiki, an Assistant Professor in Radiology at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator of the Martinos Center site of the project. “We hope that, by mapping the brain signatures of depression and anxiety disorders at an age that is critical for brain development, we can discover reliable biomarkers that will allow doctors to perform accurate diagnoses and prescribe appropriate treatments for patients.”

The study is among the first round of projects funded by the National Institutes of Health to study a disease population using HCP data collection protocols. The investigators will collect brain imaging and clinical data from adolescents with depression or anxiety disorders, and they will combine it with data obtained from healthy adolescents by collaborators at the University of Washington in St. Louis. The goal is to gain insights into how subtle differences in brain connections can predict outcomes of anxiety and depression in adolescence.

“Previous imaging studies have given researchers clues for the ways in which the brain is wired differently in psychiatric disorders,” Yendiki said. “By leveraging the unprecedented data quality of the HCP protocols, we hope to study the differences between the healthy and diseased brain in much greater detail than has been possible in the past.”

The project will be based at MIT, with the McGovern Institute’s Sue Whitfield-Gabrieli and John Gabrieli serving as its principal investigators. Adolescents with depression and/or anxiety disorders will be recruited at three different clinical sites—Boston University, McLean Hospital and MGH—and scanned at the Martinos Center, using HCP protocols. The brain scans will be analyzed to reveal functional and structural connections in the brain, leveraging algorithms that have been developed, respectively, by Whitfield-Gabrieli and Yendiki. By measuring these connections both in healthy subjects and patients, the researchers hope to determine how they can predict psychiatric disease progression.

To this end, the study will take advantage of cutting-edge MRI instrumentation found in the Martinos Center. This includes MRI at both ultra-high gradient strength (the unique Connectom 3T and the commercially available Prisma 3T) and ultra-high field strength (7T). No other group has access to such an array of advanced technology, Yendiki said. Not only is the Martinos Center the only place where all of these resources exist under one roof, it is also where many of the innovations behind them were—and continue to be—developed.


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