April 01, 2016

By Bob Carolla

The Washington Post recently published a three-part series titled “Brain Hacking.” Written by Pulitzer Prize winning science and health reporter Amy Ellis Nutt, this series is worth reading.

Hacking in this case doesn’t refer to criminal activity but to skilled scientific research using innovative technologies—and computers.

Part one of the series focuses on The Mind’s Biology, in which doctors seek to “fix” electrical circuits in the brain. The approach uses combinations of DNA biomarkers, brain imaging, neurofeedback and electrical stimulation.

The article profiles one doctor using such tools in practice, although one wonders whether some are truly “ready for primetime.” Understanding brain circuitry is an important area of inquiry and may help eventually to inform treatment. It’s good that skilled researchers and practitioners are approaching mental health issues from novel angles. However, some approaches may be expensive and their effectiveness uncertain. In considering new technology or treatment options, it’s important to keep a fundamental principle in mind: doctors and patients must be partners and consult closely in making treatment choices. That includes comparative discussions of effectiveness, risks and side effects. Are they evidence-based?

The first article notes that Thomas Insel, M.D., former head of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) believes researchers and clinicians are still at “the beginning of a long road” and that “rigorous study” is needed for biological tests and other tools.

Part two of the series is titled Hot-Wired For Happiness? Susumu Tonegawa, M.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a molecular biologist, neuroscientist and winner of the Nobel Prize, has eliminated depression in mice by “reactivating happy memory cells.” His search for a breakthrough is fueled by his experience with depression, following the death of his son from suicide.

Part three of the series, the final installment, is titled OCD Goes Under the Microscope. It examines efforts to identify patterns of activation associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  One multi-year study involves children and teenagers “playing” with joysticks and computers while lying inside of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The study requires a supercomputer to store and analyze the thousands of images being generated.

Relevant to such “computational research,” the Scientific American recently published an article: Can Big Data Help Psychiatry Unravel the Complexity of Mental Illness? It is a good companion to the Washington Post series and easy to understand for those of us without a Ph.D. in math or science. An article for those looking for something more challenging is New Studies of the 'Natural History' of Schizophrenia Raise Hope for New Treatments, published in Medical News Today. The article summarizes studies published in a special issue of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

NAMI’s mission involves education, support and advocacy for individuals and families affected by mental illness. More fundamentally, NAMI supports scientific research—the kind that can lead to breakthroughs in prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Always watch for stories in news media about medical research involving mental illness. Science advances incrementally, sometimes with twists and turns, but in the long run, it points the way to the future. It also provides hope.

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