A recent study clarified how cognitive behavioral therapy improves symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The participants were 62 adult women. One group had depression, one had PTSD, and the third was made up of healthy volunteers. None were taking medication at the time of the study. The researchers, led by Yvette Shelive, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze participants’ amygdala connectivity.
At the start of the study, participants with depression or PTSD showed diminished connectivity between the amygdala and brain areas related to cognitive control, the process by which the brain can vary behavior and how it processes information in the moment based on current goals. The lack of connectivity reflected the severity of the participants’ depression. Twelve weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy improved mood and connectivity between the amygdala and these control regions, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior frontal cortex. These regions also allow for executive functioning, which includes planning, implementation, and focus.
A 2016 study by Peter S. Bloomfield and colleagues in the American Journal of Psychiatry used PET scans to compare the activity of microglia, immune cells in the central nervous system, in healthy controls, people with schizophrenia, and those at high risk for the illness. It found that both people with schizophrenia and those at high risk had greater brain inflammation than the healthy controls.
The study was the first to show that microglial activity was elevated in people at high risk (who showed some preliminary symptoms of schizophrenia). The finding had a large effect size.
Microglial activity was also correlated with symptom severity in the high-risk participants. Increased microglial activity was not linked to depression, suggesting that it is specific to the development of psychosis.
These findings resemble those of other recent studies showing increased inflammation in people at high risk for psychosis.
The study suggests that increased microglial activity occurs before a first episode of psychosis. That means it could help identify people who may develop schizophrenia. The findings also suggest that anti-inflammatory treatment could theoretically be used to prevent psychosis.
A new technology is making it possible to view the mammalian brain’s structure and connectivity for the first time. Karl Deisseroth discussed the technology, called CLARITY, at a plenary lecture at the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
The way CLARITY works is by replacing lipids in the brain with a hydrogel substance. This preserves the structure of the brain’s neural networks, leaves proteins and nucleic acids intact, but allows for observation by rendering the brain transparent. This can be done in a system as large as the entire adult mouse brain. Early attempts took a whole day, but Deisseroth eventually found a way to render a mouse’s brain transparent in a matter of minutes.
The pictures are truly amazing, allowing for the visualization of previously microscropic neurons, dendrites, axons and connections in life-sized images. Pictures and details are available at www.clarityresourcecenter.org.
Deisseroth and colleagues have used CLARITY imaging to determine where neurons fire during different social activities. By placing photosensitive fibers in selected neurons using a virally based gene insertion technique, Deisseroth and colleagues were able to selectively fire dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area, part of the brain’s reward system, and thus increase or decrease the social interaction of mice by increasing or decreasing firing. The effects were selective to social interaction; the firing did not affect locomotor activity or exploration of an inanimate object.
The ventral tegmental area contains neurons that project to several locations in the brain, and Deisseroth and colleagues hoped to observe which were important to social interaction. Stimulating the ventral tegmental area to drive the medial prefrontal cortex caused anxiety in the mice and made them averse to social interaction. However, when the ventral tegmental area was used to selectively drive the nucleus accumbens, another part of the brain’s reward system, social interaction increased.
Deisseroth wanted to know if the nucleus accumbens was also involved in normal spontaneous social interactions. The researchers used a virus to insert an opsin-sensitive calcium gene that could give an ongoing readout of neural activity. (Opsin is a light-sensitive receptor found in cells in the retina.) The team found that the nucleus accumbens was implicated in social interaction with another mouse, but not in exploration of a novel object. Based on CLARITY imaging of the structure of ion channels (which are so small they cannot even be seen with an electron microscope), Deisseroth was able to selectively alter ion fluxes and turn neuronal firing on or off at will.
In the last 50 years, the brain and its billions of neurons and hundreds of trillions of synapses have gone from complete inaccessibility toward increasing clarity.