Therapy, Medication, and ... Brain Scans? Menninger Enrolls Psychiatric Patients In Multi-Year Research Project to Map Neural Circuits

Justin Borne checked into the Menninger Clinic in June. He had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the news came as a relief to the husband and father of two.

After years of highs, lows and drug addiction, he was finally getting help.

And so Borne happily agreed when asked to participate in the clinic’s brain research.

“You’re basically slid into a pretty narrow tube-like atmosphere. You had to be super still.”

An MRI machine at Baylor scanned Borne’s brain while he rested or watched a movie clip.

At one point, he watched a flashing dot while a plastic tube squirted sugary juice into his mouth.

“Basically you’re getting these small squirts of — I think it was a flavored ice tea. I guess they’re just monitoring how your brain responds to that.”

That’s exactly what they’re watching, says Christopher Fowler, the Associate Director of Research at Menninger.

Fowler says they start by giving squirts about every 4 seconds.

“Then we do something terrible. We delay the delivery of the juice for 10 seconds. Believe it or not, the brain registers this delay and it doesn’t like it.”

Fowler says they’re looking for differences in the brains of people who have mental illness or an addiction. Preliminary results show changes in neural circuits related to reward and disappointment.

But it’s not yet clear if treatment can reverse that or what the broader implications are.

Borne got a souvenir scan of his brain and the satisfaction of knowing future patients could benefit.

“I know I didn’t do anything special but at the same time I hope that I played at least a small role in a good cause.”

Menninger is combining the brain scans with genetic profiles, blood tests and psychological assessments.

Eventually that database could reveal new patterns for treatment.

For example, researchers elsewhere have found that brain scans of depressed people can help predict which ones will respond better to medication, and which ones to therapy.

All these studies are part of a larger attempt by psychiatrists to reclassify mental illnesses based not on various symptoms but on concrete biological markers — whether those are found in genes, blood levels or something spotted on a brain scan. 

Dr. John Oldham is Menniger’s chief of staff.

“That’s been sort of the holy grail of research. And in psychiatry, it’s been really hard to get there, the brain is the most complicated organ in the body. (For example) to be able to have biomarkers comparable to blood sugar for diabetes.”

But most psychiatrists concede the effort is still young and could take years if not decades. 

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