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New findings on brain functional connectivity may lend insights into mental disorders

Ongoing advances in understanding the functional connections within the brain are producing exciting insights into how the brain circuits function together to support human behavior–and may lead to new discoveries in the development and treatment of psychiatric disorders, according to a review and update in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

Advanced neuroimaging techniques provide a new basis for studying circuit-level abnormalities in psychiatric disorders, according to the special perspectives article by Deanna M. Barch, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis. She writes, “These advances have provided the basis for recent efforts to develop a more complex understanding of the function of brain circuits in health and of their relationship to behavior–providing, in turn, a foundation for our understanding of how disruptions in such circuits contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders.”

Functional Connectivity Data Point to New Understanding of Psychopathology

In recent years, large-scale research projects including the Human Connectome Project (HCP) have focused on defining and mapping the functional connections of the brain. The result is an extensive body of new evidence on functional connectivity and its relationship to human behavior.

In her article, Dr. Barch focuses on a technique called resting-state functional connectivity MRI (rsfcMRI), which measures how spontaneous fluctuations in blood oxygen level-dependent signals are coordinated across the brain. Analysis of rsfcMRI and other data in large numbers of subjects from the HCP will provide new insights into a wide range of psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, substance use, and cognitive impairment.

Recent studies have found that spontaneous activity from networks of regions across the brain are highly correlated even at rest (that is, when the person is not performing a specifically targeted task). This “resting state” activity may consume around 20 percent of the body’s total energy–even though the brain is only two percent of total body mass, according to Dr. Barch. “Ongoing resting-state activity may provide a critical and rich source of disease-relate variability.”