BRAIN Initiative Gains Momentum In Anxiety, Depression Research
May 29, 2014

BRAIN Initiative Gains Momentum In Anxiety, Depression Research

[ Watch the Video: Untangling The Brain Circuits In Mental Illness ]

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe online

Just over a year ago, the White House announced a new initiative aimed at gaining a broader understanding of how the human brain works. The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative will present new and novel ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

A year on and we are now learning that scientists and physicians at UC San Francisco are advancing on their work, focusing on gaining understanding and developing treatment for some of the more common and debilitating psychiatric disorders.

First up on the list are certain anxiety disorders and major depression. This course of study was one of the first research projects launched after the announcement of BRAIN. It is believed their work will pioneer neural stimulation which will help the brain to “unlearn” the patterns of these disorders that lead to them becoming more and more debilitating to the sufferer.

The UCSF research is being funded via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of that agency's new program, SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies), which officially launches on June 1, 2014. DARPA hopes that this work will first find practical use in the treatment of veterans and active duty military personnel who are suffering from anxiety and depression as a result of their military service experience.

The researchers have devised a strategy which they hope will help them to first identify brain signaling pathways that are associated with the two conditions. Once this has been achieved, they believe they then can produce devices that will precisely target those pathways in order to provide stimulation therapy meant to help the brain strengthen alternative circuits. The brain, a very resilient organ, possesses the capability for neural remodeling and learning. By taking advantage of this fact, researchers believe they can allow the newly strengthened circuits to bypass the affected circuits and in so doing eliminate the negative psychiatric symptoms.

The project, intended to run over a five-year period, received initial funding of $12 million. If the team is able to reach certain benchmarks and milestones, they will be eligible for additional supplemental funding of $26 million. The entire project will require work by more than a dozen scientists, engineers and physicians at UC Berkeley, Cornell University and New York University. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will also work on the project under a cooperative agreement.

“Human brain recording can now reveal aspects of mental illness that have been inaccessible to scientists and doctors,” said UCSF neurosurgeon Edward F. Chang, MD, team leader on the new project and a world leader in the use of brain recording technology for the surgical treatment of epilepsy. “By analyzing patterns of interaction among brain regions known to be involved in mental illness we can get a more detailed look than ever before at what might be malfunctioning, and we can then develop technology to correct it.”

The project, in addition to bringing much needed relief to those who suffer from anxiety and depression, will also minimize the staggering economic impact of the conditions. Anxiety disorders, for example, have been estimated to cost over $42 billion annually in the US alone. That figure represents one-third of the nation's total mental health care costs.

“There are millions of people for whom these disorders are not well treated. These patients are often not able to keep their jobs or to work at all, because they’re constantly struggling with symptoms of their illnesses and the pain and suffering they cause,” said team member Vikaas Sohal, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF. “This project offers hope because it’s a totally new way of seeing how the parts of the brain interact in mental illness. It’s as if we’ve been looking at still images of actors but will now be able to see the performance of a play.”

Where previous treatment focused on pharmaceutical measures aimed at specific cellular processes, this study is looking at the conditions from much more of a “systems-level” approach. Rather than relying on drug therapies, the team will study the disorders, taking in mind that they are actually disruptors of a highly complex network.

José M. Carmena, PhD, and his team at UC Berkeley will be responsible for the design, fabrication and use of miniature implantable devices once the aberrant brain patterns are recognized and identified. The devices will be key in helping the brain to re-route signals through healthier circuits helping to correct abnormal brain patterns.

Carmena and his team already have experience on this front. They have previously created brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) for individuals who have suffered paralysis or who have severely injured limbs. Carmena is co-director, with Chang, of the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses, which is focused on the development and implementation of new technologies for the restoration of sensory, motor and cognitive function in patients dealing with severe neurological conditions.

“In this new project at CNEP, we are using the same BMI concepts we have been using for the past 10 years,” said Carmena. “After learning how large-scale brain circuits work in such conditions as depression, anxiety, and addiction, we will design an implantable BMI that can detect abnormal activity and electrically stimulate some locations in these circuits to alleviate symptoms.”

The BRAIN Initiative, much like the Human Genome Project which came before it, is expected to yield a substantial return on investment for the overall incredible amount of funding it is receiving. Over a 15 year period, the US government committed $3.8 billion to the Human Genome Project which has since generated an economic output of $796 billion. That equates to $141 returned for every $1 spent.