Etkin Lab
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Etkin Lab

From Neural Circuits to Novel Solutions

The overarching aim of the Etkin lab is to understand the neural basis of emotional disorders and their treatment, and to leverage this knowledge to develop novel treatment interventions. Our work is organized around the study of the neuroscience of emotion and cognitive regulation, as well as neural circuit function, in healthy subjects and individuals with a range of psychiatric disorders. Studies aimed at understanding the neurobiology of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress, as well as their treatment, addresses:(a) which domains of neural/mental functions are involved, (b) how different existing treatment approaches yield their effects on the brain, and (c) whether emerging tools for mapping and modulating neural circuits can remediate brain abnormalities that may not be affected by current treatments.

Emotion regulation: A successful affective neuroscience approach to psychopathology and treatment requires understanding the basic mechanisms involved in emotion regulation. Although our initial work thus far has yielded important insights, we are far from a thorough understanding of how emotion is regulated. Ongoing work in the lab is focused on understanding the factors which govern emotion regulation, the relationship between different types of emotion regulation, and whether there are ways to improve emotion regulation through training.

Neural circuits subserving emotion: An element integral to the studies above is a delineation of the neural circuits that underlie emotion processing. We have, for example, demonstrated that the major amygdalar subregions in humans have distinct patterns of resting-state functional connectivity, which are perturbed in GAD. Ongoing work in the lab is focused on extending this mapping of circuitry important for emotion, using functional connectivity, in both healthy subjects and patients with mood or anxiety disorders.

Neural basis of psychopathology: Our work has focused on using neuroimaging to understand emotional and cognitive dysfunction across anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and across the lifespan. This work arises from the perspective that a cognitive neuroscience and neural circuit approach is most powerful when allowing information about brain function to “carve nature at its joints” by looking at psychopathology more broadly, rather than restricting ourselves to narrow domains of illness or arbitrary diagnostic criteria. Likewise, understanding psychopathology must occur within a life-span perspective, where both older and younger subjects are studied.

Neural mechanisms of existing treatments: Very little is known about the mechanisms of action of existing treatments in psychiatry, across both pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches. Current studies, for example, include work investigating the neural mechanisms of psychotherapy (e.g. exposure therapy for PTSD), treatment of depression with antidepressant medication, and non-invasive brain stimulation with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for medication-resistant depression. The aim of this work is to understand why these treatments work and whom they are best suited for, and to build a foundation for creation of novel therapies by understanding the mechanisms of existing ones. Ultimately, the best outcome in the treatment of psychiatric disorders will arise from a personalized intervention which will take knowledge about the individual’s brain functioning to either deliver an existing intervention (if best suited for them) or target dysfunctional brain circuitry with novel interventions.

Neuroplasticity-based brain training: We develop and test a variety of novel approaches for training emotion regulatory circuits through neuroplasticity-based computer/web-delivered brain training methods. These methods have broad applicability in psychiatry and are also readily disseminable as interventions since they are delivered over the web. Work in this area includes interventions in healthy subjects, acutely traumatized individuals at risk for psychopathology and patients with anxiety, depression or PTSD.

Probing and manipulating neural circuits in humans: A key technique in the lab for probing and, ultimately manipulating, neural circuits in humans is simulataneous TMS while imaging brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or electroencephalography (EEG). Simultaneous TMS/fMRI allows us to understand how activity in one brain region translates into activation in its interconnected network of partners (and how this underpins their behavior, emotions and thoughts). TMS/fMRI and TMS/EEG also provide information about how communication within and between defined neural circuits can be manipulated by repetitive TMS protocols, which induce plasticity in the targeted areas. This work opens up the potential for the development of rationale, circuit-based interventions informed by neuroimaging studies such as those described above. Ongoing work aims at understanding the broad range of anxiety, depression and PTSD-related psychopathology, the mechanisms of recovery from stroke, and the relationship of causally-interrogated circuit function to treatment outcome.

Welcome veterans! The Etkin Lab partners with the Palo Alto VA to better understand and treat emotional disorders in veterans. Find out more about how we can serve you.


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