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Clinical psychology meets neuroscience to develop a treatment for depression

Chiu’s recent research has specifically uncovered unique neural characteristics of major depressive disorder.

Re-enactment of a treatment session for depression using psilocybin in an image from the company COMPASS Pathways, which is developing such a treatment
Re-enactment of a treatment session for depression using psilocybin in an image from the company COMPASS Pathways, which is developing such a treatment - Copyright COMPASS Pathways/AFP -
Re-enactment of a treatment session for depression using psilocybin in an image from the company COMPASS Pathways, which is developing such a treatment - Copyright COMPASS Pathways/AFP -

How are humans motivated to do what we do? This is the fundamental question that has been driving neuroscientist Pearl Chiu (of Virginia Tech). To answer this requires a space where clinical psychology and neuroscience can converge.

As Chiu explains: “On a neurobiological level, each of our brains is similarly composed. We share the same general structures and cell types — yet as people, we’re all so different.”

Exploring these differences, Chiu adds: “I’ve always wanted to understand the brain’s role in what motivates each of us as individuals.” 

Chiu’s computational psychiatry research program has been established to understand motivation in mental illness and develop neuroscience-guided behaviourally oriented mental health treatments.

Chiu’s laboratory combines computational modelling, human neuroimaging, clinical assessments, and behavioural task data in order to decode how certain reward learning pathways in the brain underlie decision-making in a range of psychopathologies.

Chiu’s recent research has specifically uncovered unique neural characteristics of major depressive disorder, risky decision-making in teenagers, substance misuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This includes examining how specific reward learning processes are related to symptoms in people with clinical depression. By using cognitive behavioural therapy as a treatment intervention, Chiu has mapped how reinforcement learning is altered in depression and changes with symptom improvement.

Chiu’s next step is to change those processes and examine whether symptoms improve when we use behaviour to stimulate corrective neural adaptations. To support this, Chiu and her colleagues became the first research institution to measure neurochemical signalling in people with depression.

The research infers that dopamine and serotonin signalling is altered in reward learning regions of the brain. This will be considered by including study participants like medication-resistant epileptic patients with symptoms of depression who undergo continuous monitoring via electrodes implanted in the brain.

Through a small wire — finer than a strand of hair — the researchers will set out to measure sub-second fluctuations in neurochemicals from the same wire that is being used to monitor the electrical activity of the patient’s brain underlying seizures.

The researchers data will be deployed to examine how certain neural pathways are activated during value-based learning tasks and the path towards a treatment for depression.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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