In April 2013, President Barack Obama announced that the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN Initiative) would provide over $300 million to dozens of leading neuroscience researchers across the country in support of advancing our understanding of the brain. This initiative was implemented to help develop innovative technologies for treating brain disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Exploring the brain to treat mental health problems
Neurosurgeon Edward Chang, M.D., University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), was recently approved to examine the flaws in brain circuitry associated with depression. His project was one of the first to be approved under Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, and will involve the creation of electrical brain implants for treating psychiatric disorders. Chang’s innovative project is designed to map the brain’s networks associated with depression. The electrodes placed in the brain would also allow for direct stimulation of specific areas involved in emotion via an impulse, which would essentially change the structure of the brain. If Chang and his colleagues are successful, this research project will greatly improve our understanding and treatment of mood disorders such as depression.
Since the implementation of the BRAIN Initiative, brain imaging studies have led to the identification of areas of the brain and mechanisms involved in brain disorders such as addiction and schizophrenia. Pharmacogenetics has also rapidly become a research focus for developing pharmaceuticals, identifying areas of the brain and developing more effective treatments for people with mental health disorders and substance abuse. Researchers at San Diego-based Pathway Genomics Corp. have used pharmacogenetic testing to identify drugs for treating patients with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental health conditions.
Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California San Francisco and Akili Interactive Lab’s co-founder and chief science advisor, is credited for developing Project EVO, a videogame engine available to use on cellphones and tablets to improve executive function in patients with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, depression and TBI. Several studies are currently examining the effectiveness of Gazzaley’s platform for mental health disorders to improve executive function and alleviate cognitive deficits in memory, attention and perception.
Finding joy to combat addiction
Numerous studies conducted by researchers at UCLA have focused on treating behavioral health problems such as substance abuse, depression, ADHD and autism. Suzette Glasner-Edwards, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct associate professor from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, published “The Addiction Recovery Skills Workbook” earlier this month; the workbook includes activities so people with drug or alcohol use problems can experience pleasure without the consequences of substance abuse. The workbook includes evidence-based techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness and motivation interviewing. One of the newest approaches for treating addiction included in her workbook is behavioral activation therapy, which is effective for helping patients combat addiction by dealing with the area of the brain responsible for reward and addiction.
Research on the Quit Using Drugs Intervention Trial (i.e., Project QUIT), led by Lillian Gelberg, M.D., professor of family medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, demonstrated the effectiveness of brief intervention in community health centers and primary care settings for people with risky drug use. Another study provided preliminary evidence for the effectiveness of behavioral economics to disrupt decision-making and reward-processing in patients with prescription opioid addiction.
New protocols to mitigate depression and other conditions
The Depression Grand Challenge initiative, led by Nelson Freimer, M.D., director of the UCLA Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics, was launched in 2012 in an effort to reduce the burden of depression in half by 2050. The Depression Grand Challenge is the biggest depression study of its kind and will be useful for developing more effective treatments for people with depression as well as new interventions for those at risk of developing depression. To help mitigate the burden of depression, new screening and treatment protocols will also be established through this project.
An innovative technique that activates the trigeminal nerve, which is connected to areas of the brain involved in conditions such as epilepsy, PTSD, ADHD and TBI, is currently being investigated by James McGough, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry, and Sandra Loo, Ph.D., associate professor, both of whom are from UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and the Semel Institute. They are currently examining the effectiveness of trigeminal nerve stimulation (TNS) as an alternative to psychostimulant treatment for children with ADHD. The results of the Phase I trial indicated that TNS therapy improved children’s response inhibition and executive functioning without significant risk. Phase II of this research began in January 2015 and examines external trigeminal nerve stimulation (eTNS) technology as effective treatment for children with ADHD.
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Written by Amanda Habermann, M.S. clinical psychology, Sovereign Health Group writer