As technology reveals more details about our brains’ inner workings, researchers in an emerging field—translational neuroscience—are scouting better ways to address some of the problems that bedevil us.
Psychology professors Phil Fisher and Elliot Berkman, directors of the University of Oregon’s new Center for Translational Neuroscience, are among the leaders of an effort to develop personalized solutions for problems ranging from addiction and depression to Alzheimer’s. The stakes are huge. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four American adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder.
Historically, Fisher says, the characterization of particular mental health challenges has lacked the precision needed to reduce them significantly. “In contrast to the strides made in the treatment of many medical illnesses, the mental health field has lagged behind in treatment efficacy,” he says. “Similarly, efforts to reduce the effects of societal ills such as poverty, discrimination, and child maltreatment have had only modest impact.”
Fisher, a double Duck who earned his master’s at the UO in 1990 and his doctorate in 1993, is expert at applying basic research findings to real-world settings. In addition to his Philip H. Knight Chair, he directs the UO psychology department’s clinical training program.
Berkman, an assistant professor of psychology, directs the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab, where he’s coined the term “motivational neuroscience” to describe studies aimed at understanding what is happening inside our heads when we fail to meet goals.
For example, only one in 20 smokers succeeds in quitting on a given attempt. But Berkman’s use of neuroimaging in studies with people who want to stop smoking has shown that success—or lack of it—is not a simple function of willpower. It’s more a matter of learning to anticipate the very earliest clues and triggers so that you don’t “suddenly” come face-to-face with your nemesis, whether it’s a cigarette or a pile of cookies.
Neuroimaging also shows that keeping your core values top of mind can boost your goals. Turns out these operate as reinforcements for the billions of neurons living within the folds of your brain. In fact, the same parts of your brain light up when you think about your motives or values as when you receive a direct reinforcement such as food or sugar. “When we saw this in our brain data,” Berkman says, “We thought, now here’s something we can use to help people.”
Research like this may have universal applications. For example, it turns out that a number of common neural circuits are involved in a range of problems from obesity to ADHD and substance abuse. “Understanding these circuits may provide new clues to efficient and effective treatments,” Fisher says.
The UO studies also help explain why being smart doesn’t save people from acting impulsively. “Often, goals are less about the horsepower of your mind and more about perseverance,” Berkman says. “Goal striving is less a battle of good versus evil and more like you’re filling a tub of water. Things like habits and cravings are faster—those faucets turn on first. The slower processes, representing future-oriented thinking, come on a little later and they tend to be weaker. What you’re battling for is the temperature of the water overall.”
Berkman is sure we’ve barely begun to understand the inner workings of our brains. He agrees that translational neuroscience is a natural for the UO, where experts in fields ranging from genomics to social psychology and cognitive neuroscience to developmental biology have been working together in new ways since moving into the university’s integrative science building, named for donors Robert and Beverly Lewis, four years ago.
This übercollaborative approach is pushing out several frontiers at once, all rich with potential applications worthy of testing by translational neuroscience. One example is the study of the human microbiome (featured in the in the Spring 2015 issue of Oregon Quarterly). “The fact that we each have a cloud of microbes in and around us—and how this might impact our health—wasn’t even on the radar five years ago,” Berkman says.
Fisher also directs the Translational Neuroscience Initiative at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. He says one of the things that sets the UO apart is that graduate students and postdocs here are learning the newest neuroimaging techniques while receiving “the best training in applied psychology.” It’s a big claim, one he justifies by pointing to the university’s historic strengths in those areas and early investments in fMRI technology, which allowed UO scientists like Helen Neville and Michael Posner to pioneer cognitive neuroscience, the study of how the brain’s neural circuits respond to thinking and behavior.
Human brain studies with fMRI do not allow researchers to see what our neurons are doing as we perform an action. However, thanks to new tools developed by biologists working across the hall from Berkman’s lab, UO scientists are the first to watch this kind of brain activity in living mice. What they learn will immediately apply to the study of mental health issues associated with early development, adolescent behavior, schizophrenia, and age-related deterioration of the brain.
“The goal is to develop ways of solving big societal problems like opioid abuse,” Berkman says. “With proper funding, we can use existing information to make progress on these issues without having to start from square one.”
Fisher, internationally acclaimed for his novel approaches to building resilience in children from adverse backgrounds, says he’s most excited about high-risk, high-reward ideas.
“We have the highest aspirations for what collaborative, interdisciplinary science can do to address the health and well-being of people in Oregon, throughout the US, and around the globe.”
—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications