1. Study identifies biomarker for atypical development in infants at risk for developing autism

    September 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Columbia University Medical Center press release:

    New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high versus low familial risk for developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The search for neurobiological markers that precede atypical trajectories is important in infants with a high risk for developing autism-related disorders because early recognition allows for early intervention and mitigation of difficulties later in life.

    Using data from National Database for Autism Research (NDAR), lead author Kristina Denisova, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at CUMC and Fellow at the Sackler Institute, studied 71 high and low risk infants who underwent two functional Magnetic Resonance imaging brain scans either at 1-2 months or at 9-10 months: one during a resting period of sleep and a second while native language was presented to the infants. After extracting measures of head movements during the scans, the statistical characteristics of these movements were quantified.

    The study found that infants at high risk for developing ASD have elevated levels of “noise” and increased randomness in their spontaneous head movements during sleep, a pattern possibly suggestive of problems with sleep. In addition, 1- to 2-month-old high risk infants showed more similar signatures while listening to native language and while sleeping while low risk infants showed distinct signatures during the two conditions.

    Further, specific features of head movements during sleep at 1-2 months predicted future flatter (delayed) early learning developmental trajectories in the high-risk babies. The existence of generally atypical learning trajectories in the high risk group was verified in separate data sets from four representative high risk infant-sibling studies comprising a total of 1,445 infants with known ASD outcomes as children. These analyses showed that high risk infants — even those without ASD diagnoses — have significantly lower functioning in childhood relative to low risk infants. The current study reveals a possible way to predict which 1-2 months-old infants will show atypical developmental trajectories as toddlers.

    Dr. Denisova said, “The finding that head movement signatures are responsive to high context stimuli (native language speech) in low but not high risk infants is informative because it suggests that infants whose siblings were diagnosed with ASD are less attuned to evolutionarily important stimuli early in life.” She added that this response pattern may underlie atypical information processing in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders.

    Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, MD, an autism researcher who was not involved in this study, noted, “This study is a good example of how existing data can be mined for new insights. Additional work is needed to replicate the current findings and understand the underlying mechanisms, but this work suggests new ways to look at movement or motor function in infants at high risk of ASD.”


  2. Childhood maltreatment may change brain’s response to threat

    by Ashley

    From the Society for Neuroscience press release:

    Neural activity associated with defensive responses in humans shifts between two brain regions depending on the proximity of a threat, suggests neuroimaging data from two independent samples of adults in the Netherlands published in The Journal of Neuroscience. In one sample, the findings suggest that emotional abuse during childhood may shift the balance of activity between these regions.

    The amygdala and a closely related region called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) are both activated in response to a threat, but it is unclear how these regions orchestrate defensive responses in humans. Floris Klumpers and colleagues found that anticipation of an uncomfortable but harmless electrical shock was associated with increased activity in BNST, which is strongly connected with other brain regions that may be involved in deciding how to respond to a distant threat. In contrast, the shock itself was associated with increased activity in the amygdala, which maintains stronger connections with lower brain regions that may facilitate immediate and involuntary responses to acute danger, such as increased heart rate.

    Finally, the authors found that participants in one sample who reported greater childhood maltreatment (primarily emotional abuse and neglect rather than physical and sexual abuse) exhibited increased amygdala activity during shock anticipation. This finding shows how early life stress may impact an individual’s perception of distant threats.


  3. Study sheds new light on how brain operates like GPS

    September 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Florida State University press release:

    Every time you walk out of a building, you immediately see where you’re at and then step toward a destination. Whether you turn left, right or go straight ahead, you don’t even think about it. Simple, right?

    Not exactly. The brain performs a complex calculation that works a lot like the Global Positioning System.

    Florida State University’s Aaron Wilber, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, has discovered new insights into how the brain is organized to help a person navigate through life. His findings were published today in the September issue of the journal Neuron.

    “We have not had a clear understanding of what happens when you step out of a subway tunnel, take in your surroundings and have that moment where you instantly know where you are,” Wilber said. “Now we’re getting closer to understanding that.”

    Wilber wanted to get a clearer picture of how a person makes the transition from seeing a scene and then translating the image into a plan for navigation.

    The parietal cortex is the part of the brain that helps make that happen. It integrates information coming in from various senses and helps a person understand what action to take as a result. The response gets recorded as a memory with help from other parts of the brain, creating a “map” of the location that a person can recall to help get around from place to place.

    Then in the future a person can link that same view, or even just a part of it, to the brain’s map and know what action to take.

    Wilber discovered how the parietal cortex allows us to perform the appropriate action for a particular location.

    Lots of single cells in that region take in streams of sensory information to help a person get oriented, but those individual cells also cluster together in larger modules that work together. Those modules in the parietal cortex generate a physical response and, at the same time, are able to reconfigure themselves as a person learns and makes memories.

    “These different modules are talking to each other and seem to be changing their connections just like single cells change their connections,” Wilber said. “But now we’re talking about large groups of cells becoming wired up in different ways as you learn and remember how to make a series of actions as you go about your day-to-day business.”

    Wilber’s team was able to make recordings of various areas in a rat’s brain and found certain regions showed distinct patterns of activity, and those areas were associated with a particular action. Researchers converted those patterns of activity into graphical illustrations, which offered a visual model of brain activity patterns.

    The team then documented an identical sequence of patterns in certain areas of the brain every time the animal performed a series of actions. In fact, the illustrations were so accurate, researchers could identify the animal’s specific behavior just by looking at the brain activity patterns without ever seeing the actual physical action.

    Wilber continued making recordings when the rat slept and, based on the graphical waveforms, discovered the animal actually replayed the same actions in the brain during dreaming. But the dream sequence played out in fast forward at a rate about four times faster than real-life speed.

    “We think these fast-forward ‘dreams’ we observe in rats could explain why in humans when you dream and wake up, you think a lot more time passed than actually has because your dreams happen at high speed or fast forward,” Wilber said. “Maybe dreams happen in fast forward because that would make it easier to create new connections in your brain as you sleep.”

    As those new connections form, Wilber said, then the next time you go to the store you remember how to get there because your brain has linked your previous actions with certain places, such as turning right at a certain intersection.

    Wilber ultimately wants to understand how that process breaks down in people with Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological disorders. He recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health to pursue this research.


  4. Young binge drinkers show altered brain activity

    by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Researchers have studied the brain activity of young binge-drinking college students in Spain, and found distinctive changes in brain activity, which may indicate delayed brain development and be an early sign of brain damage.

    For many students, college involves a lot of socializing at parties and at bars, and alcohol is a common factor in these social environments. Excessive alcohol use, in the form of binge drinking, is extremely common among college students, and one study has estimated that as many as one third of young North Americans and Europeans binge drink.

    So, what defines binge drinking? The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes a binge as drinking five or more drinks for men and four or more for women within a two-hour period, and for many college students, these limits wouldn’t equate to a particularly heavy night. Previous research has linked binge drinking to a variety of negative consequences including neurocognitive deficits, poor academic performance, and risky sexual behavior.

    While numerous studies have shown that the brains of chronic alcoholics have altered brain activity, there is also evidence that bingeing can change adolescents’ brains. Eduardo López-Caneda, of the University of Minho in Portugal, investigates this phenomenon.

    “A number of studies have assessed the effects of binge drinking in young adults during different tasks involving cognitive processes such as attention or working memory,” says López-Caneda. “However, there are hardly any studies assessing if the brains of binge drinkers show differences when they are at rest, and not focused on a task.”

    In a recent study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, López-Caneda and colleagues set out to see if the resting brains of binge-drinking college students showed any differences compared with those of their non-bingeing counterparts.

    The researchers recruited first year college students from a university in Spain, and asked them to complete a questionnaire about their drinking habits. Students that had participated in at least one binge within the previous month were considered to be binge drinkers, whereas non-bingers had never binged before. By attaching electrodes to the students’ scalps, the scientists could assess electrical activity in various brain regions.

    Compared with the non-bingers, the binge drinkers demonstrated altered brain activity at rest. They showed significantly higher measurements of specific electrophysiological parameters, known as beta and theta oscillations, in brain regions called the right temporal lobe and bilateral occipital cortex.

    Surprisingly, previous studies have found very similar alterations in the brains of adult chronic alcoholics. While the young bingers in this study might occasionally consume alcohol to excess, they did not fit the criteria for alcoholism. So, what does this mean?

    The changes might indicate a decreased ability to respond to external stimuli and potential difficulties in information processing capacity in young binge drinkers, and may represent some of the first signs of alcohol-induced brain damage.

    The brains of adolescents are still developing, meaning that they might be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol abuse. “These features might be down to the particularly harmful effects of alcohol on young brains that are still in development, perhaps by delaying neuromaturational processes,” says López-Caneda.

    The researchers stress that they need to carry out further studies to confirm if the features they have observed in these young binge drinkers are caused by their bingeing, and if their brain development might be impaired. However, the results suggest that bingeing has tangible effects on the young brain, comparable with some of those seen in chronic alcoholics. “It would be a positive outcome if educational and health institutions used these results to try to reduce alcohol consumption in risky drinkers,” says López-Caneda.


  5. Study suggests the bilingual brain calculates differently depending on the language used

    September 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Luxembourg press release:

    People can intuitively recognise small numbers up to four; however, when calculating they depend on the assistance of language. In this respect, the fascinating research question ensues: how do multilingual people solve arithmetical tasks presented to them in different languages of which they have a very good command? The question will gain in importance in the future, as an increasingly globalised job market and accelerated migration will mean that ever more people seek work and study outside of the linguistic area of their home countries.

    This question was investigated by a research team led by Dr Amandine Van Rinsveld and Professor Dr Christine Schiltz from the Cognitive Science and Assessment Institute (COSA) at the University of Luxembourg. For the purpose of the study, the researchers recruited subjects with Luxembourgish as their mother tongue, who successfully completed their schooling in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and continued their academic studies in francophone universities in Belgium. Thus, the study subjects mastered both the German and French languages perfectly. As Luxembourger students, they took maths classes in primary schools in German and then in secondary schools in French.

    In two separate test situations, the study participants had to solve very simple and a bit more complex addition tasks, both in German and French. In the tests it became evident that the subjects were able to solve simple addition tasks equally well in both languages. However, for complex addition in French, they required more time than with an identical task in German. Moreover, they made more errors when attempting to solve tasks in French.

    During the tests, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure the brain activity of the subjects. This demonstrated that, depending on the language used, different brain regions were activated. With addition tasks in German, a small speech region in the left temporal lobe was activated. When solving complex calculatory tasks in French, additional parts of the subjects’ brains responsible for processing visual information, were involved. However, during the complex calculations in French, the subjects additionally fell back on figurative thinking. The experiments do not provide any evidence that the subjects translated the tasks they were confronted with from French into German, in order to solve the problem. While the test subjects were able to solve German tasks on the basis of the classic, familiar numerical-verbal brain areas, this system proved not to be sufficiently viable in the second language of instruction, in this case French. To solve the arithmetic tasks in French, the test subjects had to systematically fall back on other thought processes, not observed so far in monolingual persons.

    The study documents for the first time, with the help of brain activity measurements and imaging techniques, the demonstrable cognitive “extra effort” required for solving arithmetic tasks in the second language of instruction. The research results clearly show that calculatory processes are directly affected by language.


  6. Systems analysis points to links between Toxoplasma infection and common brain diseases

    by Ashley

    From the University of Chicago Medical Center press release:

    More than 2 billion people — nearly one out of every three humans on earth, including about 60 million people in the United States — have a lifelong infection with the brain-dwelling parasite Toxoplasma gondii.

    In the September 13, 2017, issue of Scientific Reports, 32 researchers from 16 institutions describe efforts to learn how infection with this parasite may alter, and in some cases amplify, several brain disorders, including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as well as some cancers.

    When a woman gets infected with T. gondii during pregnancy and passes the parasite on to her unborn child, the consequences can be profound, including devastating damage to the brain, nervous system and eyes.

    There is growing evidence, however, that acquiring this infection later in life may be far from harmless. So the researchers began looking for connections between this chronic but seemingly dormant infection and its potential to alter the course of common neurologic disorders.

    “We wanted to understand how this parasite, which lives in the brain, might contribute to and shed light on pathogenesis of other, brain diseases,” said Rima McLeod, MD, professor of ophthalmology & visual science and pediatrics and medical director of the Toxoplasmosis Center at the University of Chicago.

    “We suspect it involves multiple factors,” she said. “At the core is alignment of characteristics of the parasite itself, the genes it expresses in the infected brain, susceptibility genes that could limit the host’s ability to prevent infection, and genes that control susceptibility to other diseases present in the human host. Other factors may include pregnancy, stress, additional infections, and a deficient microbiome. We hypothesized that when there is confluence of these factors, disease may occur.”

    For more than a decade, researchers have noted subtle behavior manipulations associated with a latent T. gondii infection. Rats and mice that harbor this parasite, for example, lose their aversion to the smell of cat urine. This is perilous for a rodent, making it easier for cats to catch and eat them. But it benefits cats, who gain a meal, as well as the parasites, who gain a new host, who will distribute them widely into the environment. An acutely infected cat can excrete up to 500 million oocysts in a few weeks’ time. Even one oocyst, which can remain in soil or water for up to a year, is infectious.

    A more recent study found a similar connection involving primates. Infected chimpanzees lose their aversion to the scent of urine of their natural predator, leopards.

    The research team decided to search for similar effects in people. They focused on what they call the human “infectome” — plausible links between the parasite’s secreted proteins, expressed human microRNAs, the neural chemistry of the human host, and the multiple pathways that are perturbed by host-parasite interactions.

    Using data collected from the National Collaborative Chicago-Based Congenital Toxoplasmosis Study, which has diagnosed, treated and followed 246 congenitally infected persons and their families since 1981, they performed a “comprehensive systems analysis,” looking at a range of parasite-generated biomarkers and assessing their probable impact.

    Working with the J Craig Venter Institute and the Institute of Systems Biology Scientists, they looked at the effect of infections of primary neuronal stem cells from the human brain in tissue culture, focusing on gene expression and proteins perturbed. Part of the team, including Huan Ngo from Northwestern University, Hernan Lorenzi at the J Craig Venter Institute, Kai Wang and Taek-Kyun Kim at the Institute for Systems Biology and McLeod, integrated host genetics, proteomics, transcriptomics and circulating microRNA datasets to build a model of these effects on the human brain.

    Using what they called a “reconstruction and deconvolution,” approach, the researchers identified perturbed pathways associated with neurodegenerative diseases as well as connections between toxoplasmosis, human brain disorders and some cancers.

    They also found that:

    • Small regulatory biomarkers — bits of microRNA or proteins found in children with severe toxoplasmosis — matched those found in patients with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
    • The parasite was able to manipulate 12 human olfactory receptors in ways that mimicked the cat-mouse or the chimp-leopard exchange.
    • Evidence that T. gondii could increase the risk of epilepsy, “possibly by altering GABAergic signaling.”
    • T. gondii infection was associated with a network of 1,178 human genes, many of which are modified in various cancers.

    “Our results provide insights into mechanisms whereby this parasite could cause these associated diseases under some circumstances,” the authors wrote. “This work provides a systems roadmap to design medicines and vaccines to repair and prevent neuropathological effects of T. gondii on the human brain.”

    “This study is a paradigm shifter,” said co-author Dennis Steinler, PhD, director of the Neuroscience and Aging Lab at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “We now have to insert infectious disease into the equation of neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy and neural cancers.”

    “At the same time,” he added, “we have to translate aspects of this study into preventive treatments that include everything from drugs to diet to life style, in order to delay disease onset and progression.”


  7. Study suggests teens’ ability to consider the intentions of others linked to structural changes in the brain

    September 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Dartmouth College press release:

    When it comes to the concept of fairness, teenagers’ ability to consider the intentions of others appears to be linked to structural changes underway in the brain, according to a Dartmouth-led study published by Scientific Reports. The study is the first to provide evidence linking structural changes with behavioral changes within this context. (See video: https://youtu.be/uLv5da5wvus.) Understanding the intentions of others is fundamental to human cooperation and how we exist as social beings.

    Understanding the intentions of others is fundamental to human cooperation and how we exist as social beings. Previous studies have demonstrated that certain areas of the social brain relating to how we care about others or “social inference,” continue to undergo cortical development until late adolescence. As demonstrated by the following time-lapse video, these changes include the thinning of the brain’s cortex, which likely reflect synaptic reorganization in how brain regions are connected and communicate with each other. The study is the first to provide evidence linking structural changes with behavioral changes in the brain within the context of fairness concerns.

    For the study, participants between nine and 23-years old took part in an ultimatum game based on the exchange of money. Proposers first selected between two different divisions of $10, and responders then decided whether to accept or reject the chosen division. Researchers evaluated how participants used two different cognitive strategies when making their decision using computational modeling, and then investigated how these processes correlated with measurements of participants’ cortical thickness, as obtained through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

    Younger players tended to want to minimize the difference in the division of the money, whereby everyone gets the same amount but as players became older, they were more inclined to consider the other player’s intentions. This shift from a simple rule-based egalitarian strategy to a more sophisticated strategy that considers both the other player’s intentions and notions of reciprocity, was observed during late adolescence. This gradual shift coincided with cortical thinning in the brain, specifically, in areas of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved with how we view others’ mental states, and posterior temporal cortex, which is involved in visual perception particularly in processing facial information.

    “This work provides converging evidence in line with other research that the computation of inferring intentions is processed in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex,” said senior author Luke Chang, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the director of the Computational Social Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (Cosan Lab) at Dartmouth. “We were surprised that this shift in preference for considering others’ intentions occurred so late in development. Of course, younger children can infer the intentions of others, but we see that this ability continues to be refined well into late adolescence. This finding has potential implications regarding how much autonomy this age group should be given when making important social and ethical decisions, such as purchasing weapons, going to war, and serving on juries,” added Chang.


  8. Study identifies neurons associated with thirst

    by Ashley

    From the American Association for the Advancement of Science press release:

    Scientists have identified a subgroup of neurons in mice that drive a critical instinct – thirst. Activity of the neurons decreased as the mice consumed more water, suggesting that they play a direct role in the primordial emotion. Previous research suggests that a certain region of the brain, the median preoptic nucleus (MnPO), contributes to the sensation of thirst, yet the exact underlying mechanisms have remained largely unknown. To gain a better understanding, William E. Allen et al. analyzed RNA expression within the MnPO of mice that had been deprived of water for 48 hours, identifying a cluster of excitatory neurons of interest. When the researchers used optogenetics to inhibit these neurons, mice reduced their water consumption; in contrast, photoactivation of the neurons in water-satiated animals prompted them to increase their water consumption. In mice trained to press a lever to access water, the rate of lever-pressing corresponded with a decrease in neural activity over time, suggesting that MnPO neuron activity appears to adjust for water intake. Remarkably, mice provided an opportunity to shut off photoactivation of MnPO neurons by lever pressing did so vigorously, ending the undesirable feeling of thirst. The researchers also identified ways in which these MnPO thirst neurons are connected to a variety of other brain regions, which could translate thirst drive into specific goal-directed actions, they say. A Perspective by Claire Gizowski and Charles W. Bourque discusses these findings in greater detail.


  9. Nutrition has benefits for brain network organization

    September 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release:

    Nutrition has been linked to cognitive performance, but researchers have not pinpointed what underlies the connection. A new study by University of Illinois researchers found that monounsaturated fatty acids — a class of nutrients found in olive oils, nuts and avocados — are linked to general intelligence, and that this relationship is driven by the correlation between MUFAs and the organization of the brain’s attention network.

    The study of 99 healthy older adults, recruited through Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, compared patterns of fatty acid nutrients found in blood samples, functional MRI data that measured the efficiency of brain networks, and results of a general intelligence test. The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

    “Our goal is to understand how nutrition might be used to support cognitive performance and to study the ways in which nutrition may influence the functional organization of the human brain,” said study leader Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology. “This is important because if we want to develop nutritional interventions that are effective at enhancing cognitive performance, we need to understand the ways that these nutrients influence brain function.”

    “In this study, we examined the relationship between groups of fatty acids and brain networks that underlie general intelligence. In doing so, we sought to understand if brain network organization mediated the relationship between fatty acids and general intelligence,” said Marta Zamroziewicz, a recent Ph.D. graduate of the neuroscience program at Illinois and lead author of the study.

    Studies suggesting cognitive benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in MUFAs, inspired the researchers to focus on this group of fatty acids. They examined nutrients in participants’ blood and found that the fatty acids clustered into two patterns: saturated fatty acids and MUFAs.

    “Historically, the approach has been to focus on individual nutrients. But we know that dietary intake doesn’t depend on any one specific nutrient; rather, it reflects broader dietary patterns,” said Barbey, who also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.

    The researchers found that general intelligence was associated with the brain’s dorsal attention network, which plays a central role in attention-demanding tasks and everyday problem solving. In particular, the researchers found that general intelligence was associated with how efficiently the dorsal attention network is functionally organized used a measure called small-world propensity, which describes how well the neural network is connected within locally clustered regions as well as across globally integrated systems.

    In turn, they found that those with higher levels of MUFAs in their blood had greater small-world propensity in their dorsal attention network. Taken together with an observed correlation between higher levels of MUFAs and greater general intelligence, these findings suggest a pathway by which MUFAs affect cognition.

    “Our findings provide novel evidence that MUFAs are related to a very specific brain network, the dorsal attentional network, and how optimal this network is functionally organized,” Barbey said. “Our results suggest that if we want to understand the relationship between MUFAs and general intelligence, we need to take the dorsal attention network into account. It’s part of the underlying mechanism that contributes to their relationship.”

    Barbey hopes these findings will guide further research into how nutrition affects cognition and intelligence. In particular, the next step is to run an interventional study over time to see whether long-term MUFA intake influences brain network organization and intelligence.

    “Our ability to relate those beneficial cognitive effects to specific properties of brain networks is exciting,” Barbey said. “This gives us evidence of the mechanisms by which nutrition affects intelligence and motivates promising new directions for future research in nutritional cognitive neuroscience.”


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

    by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins press release:

    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. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    Advanced neuroimaging techniques provide a new basis for studying circuit-level abnormalities in psychiatric disorders, 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 brain 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 disorders.”

    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 brain circuits.

    Some brain networks 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 functional connectivity 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 functional brain connectivity, 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.