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Neuroimaging is a core component of psychiatric research. Research involving neuroimaging can point to differences in brain systems that underlie psychiatric illness, treatment response, and properties of brain function that convey risk for disease.

Neuroimaging techniques that are frequently used in psychiatry research include:

  • Structural and functional methods based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

  • Molecular assays using Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

  • Electrophysiological approaches

The Division of Psychiatric Neuroimaging comprises a diverse group of laboratories and affiliated initiatives that seek to understand psychiatric illness using brain imaging approaches. Our investigators study a range of psychiatric disorders across the lifespan, including developmental and adult-onset illnesses. A further strength of the program is that it serves as a nexus linking traditional academic departments with Mass General, especially for the areas of psychology and neuroscience, which have a long-standing focus on psychiatric illness.

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Training and Co-Mentorship

Cross-disciplinary collaboration and training are essential components of neuroimaging research within the Department of Psychiatry. The field merges clinical, basic neuroscience and genetics, engineering, and psychology. A successful model that created a joint-mentorship team for emerging scientists was adopted under the leadership of Dr. Scott Rauch. The team consisted of a senior member of the neuroimaging program, a senior clinician-scientist targeting a specific disorder, and a senior scientist with deep expertise in an approach to human clinical neuroscience. This remarkably successful framework anticipated the NIH Roadmap initiatives that emphasize interdisciplinary training.

We have successfully trained over 20 scientists via NIH K-awards and many additional postdoctoral fellows and research-track residents. Many former trainees have become leaders of the field, including:

  • Dr. Cary Savage - director the functional neuroimaging programs at the University of Kansas
  • Dr. Stephan Heckers - chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University
  • Dr. Darin Dougherty - director of the Psychiatric Neurotherapeutics Program at Harvard

Augmenting this infrastructure, Drs. Bruce Rosen, Randy Buckner, and John Gabrieli, who is Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT, received a training grant as part of the Blueprint for Neuroscience Research initiative. The overall goal of the program is to train a new generation of researchers who are fluent in the principles and technologies of neuroimaging, who understand their application to experimental questions in neuroscience, and who are comfortable working across disciplines and institutions. 

A new T32 fellowship, the Translational Neuroscience Training for Clinicians (TNTC) fellowship is co-directed by Dr. Joshua Roffman and Dr. Randy Buckner. This postdoctoral fellowship aims to bridge the wealth of neuroscience in the Boston area to early career clinician-scientists in mental health disciplines.

History of Psychiatric Neuroimaging at Mass General

As a result of the growing opportunity to utilize neuroimaging as a tool for psychiatric research, the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Group was founded in 1994 and evolved into a departmental program in 2003. The program was led by Dr. Scott Rauch until he assumed the role of president of McLean Hospital in 2006 and was succeeded by Dr. Randy Buckner in 2008. Dr. Buckner is a pioneer in developing novel functional neuroimaging approaches and applying them in clinical research. Since 2017, the division has been co-directed by Dr. Buckner and Dr. Joshua Roffman, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies the biology of serious mental illness

Under Dr. Rauch’s leadership, the program successfully melded three existing strengths of Mass General – the clinical research programs within the Department of Psychiatry, the biomedical imaging advances being made within the Department of Radiology and the anatomical techniques being innovated by the Center for Morphometric Analysis (CMA) within the Department of Neurology. This interdisciplinary experiment resulted in several major breakthroughs that have led the field of psychiatric neuroimaging research.

The first wave of discovery yielded probes to tap into affective and cognitive systems disrupted in psychiatric illness, and paradigm development continues to be a strength of the program. The second wave of discovery applied these novel techniques to understand differences in psychiatric disorders. Arising from close collaborations between the clinical research programs and the imaging group, major papers have reported differences in specific brain systems including for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Significant progress has been achieved in translational research across a number of domains:

  • The use of neuroimaging measures in clinical trials -  As novel treatments for psychiatric illness emerge, a potential area of high impact for neuroimaging research is its contribution to the design of clinical trials and use as a biomarker endpoint. Recent work has especially focused on the neural bases of the placebo effect with direct practical applications to trial design
  • Understanding the neural bases of complementary medical approaches - These commonly used approaches include meditation and acupuncture. In a recent study employing sensitive methods to examine cortical architecture, long-term meditators were shown to have increased cortical thickness in brain areas important to attention and interoception.

One of the most promising translational opportunities arises from the use of neuroimaging to guide and evaluate neurotherapeutics. Device and surgical treatments are becoming a more common option for severe, intractable psychiatric illness. These interventions include transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), cortical stimulation (CS), and deep brain stimulation (DBS).

Neuroimaging, in addition to providing targets for these interventions, also provides methods for presurgical planning and post-operative evaluation. The Division of Neurotherapeutics was established in 2003 to foster research on neurotherapeutic treatment of psychiatric illness.

A signature project of Dr. Buckner’s tenure as director, the Harvard/Mass General Brain Genomics Superstruct Project (GSP) was established in 2008 and holds one of the largest collections of uniformly acquired MRI, genomic and neurocognitive data in the world. Co-directed by Dr. Randy Buckner, Dr. Jordan Smoller and Dr. Joshua Roffman, GSP now includes data from >4,000 individuals in the Boston area. GSP has supported transformative advances in functional connectivity, generated novel statistical approaches to estimating heritability of MRI phenotypes, and linked polygenic variation to neural circuitry underlying negative valence traits. GSP also contributes data to large-scale imaging genetics consortia that investigate the genomic architecture of brain anatomy.