If professionals in any two medical fields ought to collaborate, those fields are neuroscience and psychiatry.
Yet such interactions appear to be rare. Neuroscientists study how the nervous system functions, while psychiatrists treat conditions like depression, anxiety, and psychosis, often without a firm grasp of what’s happening in the brains of people with disorders.
But that’s changing at the U of M Medical School. Professor A. David Redish in the Department of Neuroscience and Sophia Vinogradov, head of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, have joined forces to combat mental illness. They now lead the U of M’s NeuroPlasticity Research in Support of Mental Health (NeuroPRSMH, pronounced “neuroprism”) collaborative to translate basic science findings into the next generation of treatments for several mental illnesses.
“It’s a new way of doing psychiatry,” Redish adds.
Different minds, same direction
It turned out that both Vinogradov and Redish had the same idea independently. When she asked him to speak to an audience of psychiatrists in her first grand rounds lecture as head of the department, he likened the brain to a computer that processes incoming information to make decisions. He also said enough is known about that processing to begin identifying what makes it go wrong, leading to mental and behavioral illnesses.
The psychiatrists were intrigued. Today the collaborative Redish and Vinogradov launched draws on the expertise of more than 30 faculty members in neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, health informatics, and imaging. This greatly ups the chances that scientific discoveries will be applied to generate better-targeted treatments.
Solid steps forward
In psychosis, Vinogradov says, something in the brain’s information exchange network malfunctions, causing symptoms like delusions, hallucinations, and a growing disconnect from reality. To identify the cause, neuroscientists and psychiatrists will use brain games to learn how people process different situations and how the brain functions in people with psychosis compared to those without the disorder.
“We can start to build models of what might be happening by studying interactions of small networks of cells in rat or mouse brains,” says Vinogradov. “From there, we can extrapolate to understand what might be happening in the human brain.”
Another area concerns eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, in which patients starve themselves to get or stay thin. It’s a big concern for collaborative member Ann Haynos, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
Little is known about what causes anorexia even though, Haynos says, “The only psychiatric disorder more deadly than anorexia is opioid addiction.”
But now, drawing on Redish’s findings about how rodents’ brains work and findings in humans by collaborative member Angus MacDonald, a professor in the Department of Psychology, an answer is beginning to take shape.
A brain game created by NeuroPRSMH members revealed that in the brains of people with anorexia, decision-making rules were more rigid than in the brains of others. For example, says Haynos, instead of thinking, “I’m hungry, what do I want?” people with anorexia would think, “It’s noon, and I’m supposed to eat 200 calories now.” And that pattern extends into the rest of their life.
Thanks to NeruoPRSMH, Haynos is now exploring therapies to increase her patients’ capacity for flexible decision-making.