Understanding the brain network’s signaling patterns has become essential to diagnosing common psychiatric disorders such as depression and finding viable treatment options that can reduce its symptoms. Research funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is combining the efforts of scientists, engineers, and physicians to find innovative solutions that can help treat people suffering from neurological and psychiatric conditions including military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) have recruited Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy patients who are already undergoing brain recordings that will be used to examine signaling activity in diverse regions of the brain. By identifying brain signaling pathways specific to anxiety and depression, the research team hopes to develop stimulation therapies that will strengthen alternative circuits. Precise recordings will be taken by high-resolution devices that are placed directly above the patient’s brain, showing brain activity changes during a depressed or anxious state.

“Human brain recording can now reveal aspects of mental illness that have been inaccessible to scientists and doctors,” said Dr. Edward F. Chang, UCSF neurosurgeon and team leader on the new project, in a statement. “By analyzing patterns of interaction among brain regions known to be involved in mental illness we can get a more detailed look than ever before at what might be malfunctioning, and we can then develop technology to correct it.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, around 61.5 million adults in the United States suffer from some type of psychiatric disorder, including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. For millions of people with a treatment-resistant psychiatric disorder, existing treatments such as psychotherapy and medications are ineffective in reliving their symptoms. To alleviate symptoms through a “system-level” approach, the research team will use an already successful form of therapy based on correcting brain circuits that have malfunctioned in movement disorders known as deep brain stimulation (DBS). They hope neural stimulation therapy will result in the strengthening of healthy brain circuits with long-lasting effects so that a permanent implantable device would be unnecessary.

“There are millions of people for whom these disorders are not well treated. These patients are often not able to keep their jobs or to work at all, because they’re constantly struggling with symptoms of their illnesses and the pain and suffering they cause,” said assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF, Dr. Vikaas Sohal. “This project offers hope because it’s a totally new way of seeing how the parts of the brain interact in mental illness. It’s as if we’ve been looking at still images of actors but will now be able to see the performance of a play.”