New findings on brain functional connectivity may lend insights into mental disorders

August 31, 2017

Ongoing advances in understanding the functional connections within the brain are producing exciting insights into how the brain circuits function together to support human behavior—and may lead to new discoveries in the development and treatment of psychiatric disorders, according to a review and update in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

Advanced neuroimaging techniques provide a new basis for studying circuit-level abnormalities in , according to the special perspectives article by Deanna M. Barch, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis. She writes, "These advances have provided the basis for recent efforts to develop a more complex understanding of the function of circuits in health and of their relationship to behavior—providing, in turn, a foundation for our understanding of how disruptions in such circuits contribute to the development of psychiatric ."

Functional Connectivity Data Point to New Understanding of Psychopathology

In recent years, large-scale research projects including the Human Connectome Project (HCP) have focused on defining and mapping the functional connections of the brain. The result is an extensive body of new evidence on functional connectivity and its relationship to human behavior.

In her article, Dr. Barch focuses on a technique called resting-state functional connectivity MRI (rsfcMRI), which measures how spontaneous fluctuations in blood oxygen level-dependent signals are coordinated across the brain. Analysis of rsfcMRI and other data in large numbers of subjects from the HCP will provide new insights into a wide range of psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, substance use, and cognitive impairment.

Recent studies have found that spontaneous activity from networks of regions across the brain are highly correlated even at rest (that is, when the person is not performing a specifically targeted task). This "resting state" activity may consume around 20 percent of the body's total energy—even though the brain is only two percent of total body mass, according to Dr. Barch. "Ongoing resting-state activity may provide a critical and rich source of disease-relate variability."

One key question is what constitutes the "regions" that make up the neural circuits of the brain. Recent rsfcMRI mapping studies have identified between 180 and 356 different brain regions, including many common regions that can be mapped across individuals. Future studies will look at whether these regions differ in shape, size, or location in people with psychiatric disorders—and whether these differences contribute to changes in the formation and function of .

Some identified by rsfcMRI may play important roles in the functions and processes commonly impaired in psychiatric disorders. These include networks involved in cognitive (thinking) function, attention to internal emotional states, and the "salience" of events in the environment. Many questions remain as to how these brain networks are related to behavior in general, and to psychiatric disorders in particular.

Some researchers are using HCP data to study behavioral factors relevant to psychiatric issues, including cognitive function, mood, emotions, and substance use/abuse. Other studies are looking for rsfcMRI patterns related to individual differences in depression or anxiety, and their connections to various brain networks.

Dr. Barch's research focuses on brain networks affecting the relationship between cognitive function and "psychotic-like" experiences. She notes that work on individual differences in in the HCP dataset is just getting started—the full HCP dataset was made publicly available in the spring of 2017.

"The hope is that these analyses will shed new light on how behavior of many different forms is related to , ultimately providing a new window for understanding psychopathology," Dr. Barch writes. Continued studies of the relationships between brain circuitry and behavior might eventually lead to new therapeutic targets and new approaches to treatment monitoring and selection for patients with psychiatric disorders.

Explore further: Manipulating brain network to change cognitive functions: New breakthrough in neuroscience

More information: Deanna M. Barch. Resting-State Functional Connectivity in the Human Connectome Project, Harvard Review of Psychiatry (2017). DOI: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000166

Related Stories

Manipulating brain network to change cognitive functions: New breakthrough in neuroscience

August 7, 2017
When an electric circuit breaks down, we can repair it by restoring connections in the circuit. Is it possible to restore the connections in our brain? And by doing so, is it possible to restore declining cognitive functions? ...

Women have more active brains than men

August 7, 2017
In the largest functional brain imaging study to date, the Amen Clinics (Newport Beach, CA) compared 46,034 brain SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) imaging studies provided by nine clinics, quantifying differences ...

Brain scans may indicate clues to later problems

February 1, 2017
Early predictors of anxiety and depression may be evident in the brain even at birth, suggests a study at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

How a risk gene for schizophrenia affects the brain

May 25, 2015
Scientists have for the first time shown how the disruption of a key gene involved in mental illness impacts on the brain.

MRI studies point to brain connectivity changes in autism spectrum disorders

July 14, 2015
Studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques are beginning to reveal differences in brain connectivity—the ways that different parts of the brain are connected to each other and work together—in people with ...

Epilepsy alters organization of brain networks and functional efficiency

April 29, 2015
Epilepsy, a disorder characterized by abnormal neuronal activity in certain regions of the brain, leads to organizational changes that can alter brain efficiency at the level of the whole brain. This occurs across functional ...

Recommended for you

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

December 14, 2017
Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's ...

Do bullies have more sex?

December 14, 2017
Adolescents who are willing to exploit others for personal gain are more likely to bully and have sex than those who score higher on a measure of honesty and humility. This is according to a study in Springer's journal Evolutionary ...

Children's screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research

December 14, 2017
Digital screen use is a staple of contemporary life for adults and children, whether they are browsing on laptops and smartphones, or watching TV. Paediatricians and scientists have long expressed concerns about the impact ...

Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

December 14, 2017
Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new Canadian study shows.

The iceberg model of self-harm

December 14, 2017
Researchers have created a model of self-harm that shows high levels of the problem in the community, especially in young girls, and the need for school-based prevention measures.

Encouraging risk-taking in children may reduce the prevalence of childhood anxiety

December 13, 2017
A new international study suggests that parents who employ challenging parent behavioural (CPB) methods – active physical and verbal behaviours that encourage children to push their limits – are likely protecting their ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.