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 better understand how the brain works and to develop novel treatment interventions. In support of this goal, we collaborate with neuroscientists, engineers, psychologists, physicians and others to establish a new intellectual, scientific and clinical paradigm for understanding and manipulating human brain circuits in healthy individuals and for treating psychiatric disease.

Our work is organized around the study of the neuroscience of emotion and cognitive regulation, as well as basic aspects of neural circuit functioning and control, 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.

Emotional and cognitive regulation:A successful affective neuroscience approach to psychopathology and treatment requires understanding the basic mechanisms involved in emotional and cognitive regulation. Ongoing work seeks to ground our circuit-based understanding of the control mechanisms in causal circuit-level mechanisms by combining behavioral tasks, neuroimaging (with fMRI or EEG), and computational modeling, as well as circuit disruptions with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

Neural basis of psychopathology: Since its inception, our neuroimaging studies on psychopathology have investigated the nature of brain circuit disruption across traditional psychiatric categories, both in primary studies and in large-scale meta-analyses. Results have borne out the importance of understanding the function of key emotional and cognitive circuitry, and that relevant impairments are not captured well by traditional diagnostics. Current focus in the lab is therefore on understanding the nature of mechanistically-meaningful neural circuit dysfunction at the level of individual patients and biologically-defined subgroups.

Neural mechanisms and biomarkers of existing treatments: Very little is known about the mechanisms of action of existing treatments in psychiatry, across both pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches (i.e. brain stimulation and psychotherapy). Current work in the lab is investigating all of these interventions in order to both reveal mechanisms, but also to develop clinic-ready biomarkers that can predict who will respond to which treatment. Results have already revealed potential avenues for treatment selection in depression and PTSD.

Causal probing and manipulation of neural circuits in humans: A key limitation of basic and clinical human neuroscience is in our ability to understand circuit-level causality, for example between the function of a circuit and resulting behavior or dysfunction of that circuit and psychiatric symptoms. Neuroimaging alone cannot address this challenge. To do so, we have developed a suite of methods combining causal circuit manipulation using TMS with concurrent neuroimaging to read out its effects using either fMRI or EEG. This allows us to define how a circuit contributes to a given behavior, the nature of its dysfunction in psychiatric patients, and how remediating this dysfunction can result in symptom relief. Work in the lab is furthermore focused on detailing causal mechanisms at the level of the individual, and creating tailored neuroplasticity-inducing interventions through TMS that address the abnormalities found. This opens up the potential for the development of novel, personalized, circuit-based interventions informed by neuroimaging.

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