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Mapping Brain Connectivity: A New Frontier in Understanding Mental Illness

Brain Scan Blog June 5Data from more than 1,000 brain scans have revealed interesting patterns in the way large-scale systems in the brain interact with each other. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they performed rest scans on 120 people who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and other conditions, 192 people with affective disorders with no psychosis, such as unipolar depression and bipolar disorder, and 608 healthy comparison participants.

The individuals had to simply lie down with their eyes open during the scans so the researchers could collect data on the spontaneous fluctuations in the brain and analyze all the connections in the brain simultaneously, a fast-growing approach called connectomics.

Connectomics uses experimental and computational techniques to create comprehensive maps of brain connections and aims to observe an entire nervous system rather than just select areas of the brain. It also gives us insights into the principles behind the architecture of the brain and shows how these principles support the way the brain networks work.

This "whole-system perspective" is different from how psychiatric conditions have been studied in the past, which focus on these illnesses in isolation. This connectomics study used brain mapping to address the fact that psychiatric diagnoses don’t appear to be separated by clear neurobiological boundaries, and psychiatric illnesses don’t currently use measures that allow for the verification of patient reports about their symptoms.

In the study, the presence of affective and psychotic illness was associated with disruptions in frontoparietal network connectivity and psychotic illness was associated with default network integrity disruption. This shows that very significant changes in the brain are present when psychosis is also present and that this connectomics “fingerprinting” approach could potentially be used in the diagnosis of mental illnesses. It also revealed that mental illnesses may have similar roots, or shared underlying causes. The researchers plan to use these finding to investigate further and look at how large-scale brain systems are changed by OCD and trauma.

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