Study teaches depressed to alter negative thoughts

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

fMRIs of the head

Courtesy of UBC Cognitive Neuroscience of Thought Lab

BRRRRAAAAAAAINS! Subjects in a new brain-imaging study witness their brain activity on a screen, as shown in these fMRI images.

It might sound like science fiction, but new brain-imaging research could help depression sufferers alter their negative thoughts.

A joint study between the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University aims to teach subjects how to modify their thought patterns within the prefrontal cortex region of the brain.

UBC psychology professor Kalina Christoff is heading the groundbreaking research, in which healthy volunteers are placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to witness their brain activity on a screen.

“We’ve shown in my lab that these are parts of the brain that deal with ... the highest level of cognitive emotions,” Christoff explained.

“What we are trying to do right now, something no one has ever done yet, is see if subjects can modulate [their thoughts] based on real-time fMRI feedback from that part of the brain.”

Five subjects have undergone fMRI sessions so far, and all showed improvement in modulating the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which is responsible for “executive functions” such as working memory, decision making, planning, judgment and the expression of personality and social behaviour.

Jody Culham, assistant psychology professor at Western, explained fMRIs are extremely strong devices; typical hospital scanners have 60,000 times the strength of the earth’s magnetic field. She noted, however, the sessions are completely safe because fMRIs use only magnetic fields, not radiation.

The next step in Christoff’s research is to conduct the same study with actual depression sufferers and see if their recovery can be sped up with fMRI training.

“Depression [is a] vicious circle involving a lot of reflective emotional thoughts. [Sufferers] pay more attention ... to their internal emotions and thoughts in a negative sort of light,” Christoff said.

“But by presenting this training we hope we can enhance their ability to be aware of what they’re thinking at each moment in time.”

Since depression sufferers are deficient in the neurotransmitter chemical seritonin " believed to regulate anger, mood, sexuality and appetite " Culham questioned whether they would be able to improve their thought control like the healthy subjects.

Western psychiatry professor Verinder Sharma echoed Culham’s concern.

“[The research] sounds good, but the thing in psychiatry is there have been many promising treatments. We really need to see [long-term] results,” Sharma said.

Sharma added the challenge scientists face is many depression sufferers get well through various modern treatments " ranging from medication to psychotherapy " but don’t stay well.

Christoff stressed her research aims to enhance treatment of recurrent depression, for which medication is often unsuccessful.

“The crucial moment is when the patients learn to detect the vicious cycle of negative thoughts and use that awareness to prevent the cycle from perpetuating itself.”

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