Etkin Lab
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Etkin Lab

From Neural Circuits to Novel Solutions

Research

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 implicit (i.e. nonconscious) and explicit (i.e. conscious) regulation, and whether there are ways to improve implicit emotion regulation through training.

Neural basis of psychopathology: Our recent work suggests that a deficit in implicit emotion regulation may be a core feature of anxiety, which is evident in patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), including in the context of major depressive disorder (MDD). We are also currently examining how patients with different, but related, conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain implicitly regulate emotion and how this reflects common versus disorder-specific neural signatures. In taking a life-span perspective on emotion regulation, we are also currently studying older healthy subjects and those with geriatric anxiety or depression.

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 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.

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, individuals at risk for psychiatric disorders 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). Simultaneous TMS/fMRI allows us to understand how activity in one brain region translates into activation in its interconnected network of partners, and how communication within and between defined neural circuits can be manipulated by repetitive TMS protocols, which induce plasticity in the target cortex. This work opens up the potential for the development of rationale, circuit-based interventions informed by neuroimaging studies such as those described above.

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