Worldwide Study Seeks to Unlock the Brain’s Genetic Code; Data scientists discover seven genetic variants linked to intracranial volume, Parkinson’s disease risk, and cognitive ability

Scientists collaborating across 250 institutions in 35 countries have identified variations of the genetic code that are associated with intracranial volume, which is a reflection of the maximum brain volume an individual achieves over a lifetime. These variations were also found to be associated with a person’s individual risk for Parkinson’s disease and to cognitive ability. The findings provide new avenues of research that may lead to an enhanced understanding of how differences in our genetic code can predispose individuals to brain disorders.

The findings were the result of the collective analysis of MRI brain scans and DNA from over 32,000 people worldwide. The researchers published their work in the October 3, 2016 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience .

“The magnitude of this study is truly remarkable,” said Vinay Pai, Ph.D., director of the Division of Health Informatics Technologies at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). “If you want to discover genes that affect the brain, the only way we know how to do that is by analyzing tens of thousands of brain scans and their corresponding genetic data. But, that requires bringing together hundreds of researchers and their biomedical datasets, all of whom may have a different way of looking at the data. In this study, we are seeing the fruits of NIH investments in data science, which have helped to ensure that all the researchers were analyzing the data in the same way and with the same degree of scientific rigor. This is a study that simply could not have been conducted five years ago because no system existed to enable collaboration on this scale.”

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Molecular Tool Parses Social Fear Circuit Intertwined with Aggression Hub

In its debut performance, a powerful new genetic engineering tool has revealed secrets of functionally distinct brain circuits for social fear and aggression in mice. This, even though these sets of neurons seem hopelessly intertwined. The tool, called CANE (Capturing Activated Neuronal Ensembles), helps trace distinct pathways embedded within the brain’s spaghetti-like wiring.

NIMH grantee Fan Wang, Ph.D. , of Duke University, and colleagues, reported on their discovery November 23, 2016 in the journal Neuron.

“CANE promises to be widely adopted, in part, because it uses readily available ‘on-the-shelf’ methods that many neuroscientists are already familiar with,” explained Michelle Freund, Ph.D., of the NIMH Office of Technology Development and Coordination, which funds the project.

CANE provides a window into the cause-and-effect relationship between specific behaviors and brain circuitry. It combines genetically-engineered mice and viruses with optogenetics – which permits specific circuits to be experimentally switched on-and-off by pulses of light. The viruses infect neurons with telltale tracers that visualize circuits when activated by specific behaviors, enabling precise timing and targeting.

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How Health Communicators and Journalists Can Help Replace Stigma with Science

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow, M.D. blogs about how one can use science to counter the stigma of drug addiction. There are still people who believe addiction is a moral failing that could be solved if the person had more willpower. In fact, the science is clear: Addiction is a chronic, relapsing neurobiological disorder caused by changes in the brain that make controlling drug use extremely difficult, even when an individual knows it has terrible consequences for his or her life and health and wants to stop. Journalists can help reduce the stigma toward addiction by providing information that helps the reader understand the person suffering from addiction rather than writing stories that generate anger and disgust. Increasing the public understanding of the underlying pathology and cultural reinforcers of addiction is a critical first step for improving the way our society addresses addiction. Journalists can dig deeper and ask how everyone can facilitate a more compassionate public health-based approach to those suffering from addiction.

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NIDA: Nonmedical Treatment for Cocaine Addiction Shows Promise in Pilot Trial

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) projects electromagnetic fields into the brain and can be used to either increase or decrease neuronal responsiveness in targeted brain areas. Researchers have hypothesized that administering TMS to strengthen activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and downstream brain regions can alleviate cocaine addiction (see Narrative of Discovery: Can Magnets Treat Cocaine Addiction?).

Patients who received transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) were more likely to abstain from cocaine than patients who received medications for symptoms associated with abstinence. NIDA researchers concluded that TMS appears to be safe and its efficacy as a treatment for cocaine addiction deserves to be evaluated in a larger clinical trial.

Previous findings that support the hypothesis include:

  • Studies in animals and people have demonstrated that exposure to cocaine weakens neuronal activity in the PFC, and have linked that decreased activity to some of the primary manifestations of addiction, such as craving and compulsive drug-seeking.
  • In a recent study, rats stopped seeking cocaine after researchers experimentally increased activity levels in their prelimbic cortex, a sub region of the rat cortex that shares functional similarities with the human dorsolateral PFC (see Prefrontal Cortex Stimulation Stops Compulsive Drug Seeking in Rats).

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Webinar: Advancing Comprehensive Community Suicide Prevention: An Overview

This event was the first in the webinar series, Advancing Community Suicide Prevention, which aims to disseminate comprehensive models of community suicide prevention based on the best existing evidence and drawing on experiences from across the globe. SAMHSA, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Mental Health Commission of Canada highlighted the work of the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and introduced the webinar series.

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Webisode: Diverting to Treatment: Community Policing and Mental Illness

This webisode explores the changing role of law enforcement in addressing youth and young adults with a mental illness. The program discussed evidence-based strategies to combine efforts of police officers, mental health educators, and community advocates to resolve potentially violent situations in more positive ways. Additionally, the webisode featured presentations from states that have implemented diversion programs, a law enforcement officer and crisis intervention team trainer, and a firsthand youth perspective.

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Understanding Child Welfare and the Courts

Families involved with the child welfare system must often engage with the judicial system. This Administration for Children and Families factsheet is designed to demystify the legal process and inform families of their rights and responsibilities. It includes frequently asked questions about the different stages of court proceedings, how parents and family members can prepare for court hearings, and who and what to expect in the courtroom and throughout the process.

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The All of Us Research Program Seeks Feedback from the Community

The All of Us Research Program will create a community of one million or more people from across the U.S. to improve the future of health. Those who join the program will contribute their health, environment, and lifestyle information over an extended period of time. By gathering information from such a large group of people, researchers will be able to learn how specific factors impact an individual’s health, and disease prevention and treatment. This approach to tailoring health care for each unique individual is called, “precision medicine.”  The research program developers want to hear from everyone about their thoughts and ideas for how to make All of Us a success. Ideas on topics such as participant engagement and communications, health information data security, and the type of data to be collected are welcome from researchers, health care providers, patients, or anyone who wants to contribute to greater knowledge.

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Study Suggests Omega-3s May Not Improve Outcomes in People at High Risk of Psychosis

For years, researchers have been encouraged by evidence from a small, single-center trial that suggested omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) might reduce the risk of onset and improve outcomes in patients at ultrahigh risk (UHR) for psychosis. The results of a multicenter study published today in JAMA Psychiatry now suggest omega-3s may be no better than placebo at preventing psychosis, reducing symptoms, or improving function in UHR patients.

“Although ω-3 PUFAs were well tolerated, they did not demonstrate an advantage over placebo in the prevention of psychosis at 6- or 12-month follow-up evaluations,” Patrick McGorry, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Melbourne and colleagues wrote. “Secondary outcome measures of psychiatric symptoms and functioning tended to favor the placebo group.”

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Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Research Clinic at Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital

What is Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) utilizes an electromagnet placed on the scalp that generates magnetic field pulses roughly the strength of an MRI scan. The magnetic pulses stimulate a small area on the surface of the brain about the size of a quarter. Low frequency (once per second) TMS has been shown to induce small, sustained reductions in activity in the part the brain that has been stimulated. Currently we are conducting studies to determine whether low-frequency TMS can reduce hallucinated voices. Below are descriptions of these studies and information about how to contact us.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as an Investigational Treatment for Auditory Hallucinations or “Voices”

What are “Voices”?

Auditory hallucinations are experienced by 50-80% of patients with schizophrenia and 10-15% of patients with a mood disorder. These hallucinations, referred to as voices by patients themselves, consist of spoken speech. Sometimes the voices are familiar-persons whom the patient has known. But often the voices are unrecognizable. They comment, cajole, criticize, and in some cases command the patient. Voices are often highly distressing to the patient, especially when verbal content is negative or intrusive. These experiences disrupt one’s ability to interact with others, to work, to study and even to sleep. In extreme cases they can produce suicidal behavior. In about 25% of cases, voices respond only partially or not at all to currently available drug therapy. Effective treatment alternatives for these hallucinations would therefore provide a significant benefit to patients and their communities. Our neuroimaging studies suggest that voices arise from parts of the brain that are ordinarily involved in perceiving spoken speech. These studies have led us to investigate a new treatment approach. Our strategy is to use low frequency TMS to reduce activity of brain areas appearing to generate voices. Our prediction is that reduced intensity of voices will result. These studies are described in more detail in the enclosed pdf file.