Unraveling the secrets of the human brain in health and disease - initiation of a clinical study in depression

May 29, 2019

Initiation of a clinical study in depression

Little is known about how our brains enable us to store memory, to be conscious, to perceive time, and to make decisions – the human brain hides mysteries science still cannot explain.

Whereas scientists understand much about the biochemistry of individual neurons, it is still unknown how the around 86 billion neurons of the human brain are acting in concert, form neural networks and enable cognitive processes such as memory, consciousness and information processing. Modern technologies are required to forge a bridge from basic molecular mechanisms to whole neuronal networking.

The Berlin Center for Advanced Neuroimaging (BCAN) is a leading neuroimaging institute, a joint institution of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. It is headed by neuroscientist and psychologist Prof. John-Dylan Haynes who addresses cognitive, neurologic and psychiatric questions.

The BCAN uses functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) – a sophisticated and non-invasive neuroimaging method. While undergoing brain scans, tested subjects perform cognitive tasks such as memory recall and decision making. In combination with advanced mathematics, sequential computerized models of brain activity reveal which areas of the brain are active during specific cognitive tasks. For example, by using multivariate pattern analysis, Prof. John-Dylan Haynes recently found1 that specific areas of the cortex are specialized in either unattended or attended working memory. This finding challenged a dominant view that unattended memory is co-located with attended memory but just retained in an activity-silent form.

Progress in the field of neuroimaging and research in brain function may not only facilitate an understanding of the human mind, but also to work on the mechanisms and symptoms of central nervous system (CNS) disorders, which become more and more prevalent in modern society. Unfortunately, imaging in diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer´s is nowadays mostly restricted to profound brain damage such as lesions or plaques; early and subtle events are likely to remain undetected for a long time. Diagnosis typically occurs at a late stage when the brain is already harmed and at this point, therapies start too late. So there is a special need to develop technologies to better identify early pathological processes, to start therapy early or even prevent disease onset. 

In a recent study2, the group around Prof. Haynes succeeded to measure the brain activity related to neural and psychological stress responses and relate this to disease parameters in multiple sclerosis.

In collaboration with the clinical conduct provider Charité Research Organisation GmbH, the team around Prof. Haynes has just started an industry-sponsored clinical trial in patients with depression. The study looks at the activation status of the amygdala, the integrative emotional center of the brain. In depression, the amygdala becomes more active when facing negative situations and less active when facing positive situations. Despite the small size of the amygdala – less than 2 cm in length – scientists at the BCAN are able to measure the activation of the amygdala by using fMRI.


1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29507410

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27821732

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