Aims of the FNL

The aim of the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory (FNL) under the direction of Dr. Emily Stern and Dr. David Silbersweig is to develop and apply new methods of imaging for the detection, localization, and characterization of final common pathways of major psychiatric disease expression, as a foundation for clinical advances. Functional and structural neuroimaging studies address schizophrenia, anxiety disorders (panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety in the wake of the World Trade Center [WTC] disaster), mood disorders (major depression, geriatric depression, and bipolar disorder), personality disorders (borderline personality disorder), cognitive changes associated with chemotherapy, sex differences in brain function in health and disease, normal cognitive and emotional function, and methodological development. In addition, positron emission tomography (PET) is used to study specific pathophysiological mechanisms underlying neuropsychiatric disease.

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Scientific Themes

An overarching scientific theme of the work of the FNL is the examination of fronto-limbic-subcortical circuits that are involved in control, volition, fear/stress and reward systems, across a range of psychiatric disorders. The strategy is to examine similar symptomatology and neural circuitry with the same (or similar) neuropsychological imaging probes, across major psychiatric diseases, thereby identifying neurobiological commonalities and differences among these disorders. This will provide a biological framework that can ultimately be used to develop more effective diagnostic and treatment strategies. A translational approach, building upon knowledge from basic neuroscience is used.

Imaging in Context

At the FNL, imaging is always performed in the context of fully understanding a neurobiological question. In addition to imaging data, detailed clinical assessment and characterization, behavioral data associated with task performance, and physiological measures (such as cortisol levels and skin conductance response) are also obtained, when appropriate, and are correlated with the imaging data to help elucidate the pathophysiology of the disorders. In addition, new advances in brain imaging are increasingly combined with advances in the genetics, proteomics, immunomics, metabolomics associated with human behavior and brain dysfunction. Such integrative work uses fMRI neuroimaging as a bridge forming direct links between psychology, neurobiology and basic science. In the context of the Laboratory’s neurobehavioral paradigms designed for the study of psychiatric disorders, this has the potential to make important connections from, for example, molecular mechanisms of neuroimmune dysfunction to brain circuit dysfunction. Such work can lead to the diagnostic tests that have been lacking in psychiatry to date.

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Methods Development

It has been the philosophy of the FNL from its inception that the examination of neuropsychiatric questions using imaging should not be limited by existing techniques. There has always therefore been an emphasis on developing new methodology, as needed, to better address specific neurobiological questions. Multiple PET and fMRI acquisition methods have been developed and applied.  Image processing and analysis algorithms are continually being updated and developed, with an emphasis on improving the ability to detect the tiny changes in signal in functional neuroimaging experiments.  Finally, neuropsychological paradigm development also occurs continuously, as new probes are needed for specific neurobiological questions.

Studies of Normal Cognitive and Emotional Function

Studies of normal cognitive and emotional function are performed as a means of defining neural circuits responsible for normal brain/mind function. These data are then used to test hypotheses about how these circuits may be disrupted in neuropsychiatric disorders. Current or past areas of investigation in healthy individuals are: the study of audition, language, vision, emotion, attention and memory, as well as an increased focus on gender biology and sex differences in brain function. These latter studies shed light on why certain disorders strike women and men differently, at different points in the life and reproductive cycle.