Award to Neuroscientist Boosts Mental Health Research

August 17, 2011

Brain areas involved in making decisions about rewards are highlighted.

A Rochester neuroscientist whose laboratory research has already helped patients has received a prestigious award to explore new opportunities to help people with conditions like schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction.

Suzanne Haber, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has received a Distinguished Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. She is one of 15 scholars nationwide to receive the award, also known as a NARSAD award (the foundation was previously known as the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression). Each recipient receives $100,000 toward new research aimed at alleviating the suffering caused by mental illness.

Haber is a world leader uncovering and understanding the wiring in a highly sophisticated part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain involved in decision-making that involves reward and potential risk. The prefrontal cortex is what prompts us to forego a box of cookies for breakfast, for instance, so we can reach our long-term weight-loss goal, or that helps keep a student studying late at night in the quest to obtain her college degree, instead of partying with friends.

Suzanne Haber, Ph.D.

It’s a part of the brain that changes and develops right up until young adulthood – precisely the time when conditions like schizophrenia, addictions, and obsessive compulsive disorder develop. Indeed, problems with the prefrontal cortex are linked directly to those illnesses.

In the new work funded by the foundation, Haber will analyze the brain’s wiring at early stages in life and will compare results from standard techniques to newer imaging methods, including MRI and diffusion tensor imaging or DTI. It’s all part of her quest to understand the wiring of the brain more completely. Just last month, her laboratory’s work on the prefrontal cortex was featured on the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience. Currently, surgeons who use deep brain stimulation to treat patients incorporate her findings into maps they use to help guide the placement of electrodes in the brain.

“For deep brain stimulation surgery to have its most benefit for patients, it’s important to understand how these brain regions are connected,” said Haber. “It’s crucial not only to treat conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder or stroke, but also for understanding how the healthy brain works.”

Two years ago, Haber developed a new Silvio C. Conte Center, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, to explore the science behind deep brain stimulation. It’s a five-year collaboration among five universities, including Rochester, Harvard University, Brown University, University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Puerto Rico. While DBS is an approved treatment for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, it’s under study for possible use in psychiatric disorders like depression and OCD. The group is looking at precisely what happens in the brain when deep brain stimulation occurs and for ways to improve the procedure for patients.

To understand Haber’s work on brain circuits known as white matter tracts, which connect important brain regions to one another, think of an extensive highway system connecting many types of communities. In upstate New York, for instance, the Thruway is the major artery connecting the largest cities. But countless other roadways snake through the countryside – highways, city streets, alleys, and so on, connecting villages, towns, small cities, hamlets and neighborhoods.

Then consider the different types of “travelers,” which correspond to different kinds of information transmitted in the brain. Cars, trucks, bicycles, moving vans, motorcycles sometimes share a road, and sometimes take different paths. Assorted construction crews dot the landscape, closing some roads unexpectedly while opening others on short notice, as vehicles constantly exit and enter traffic, some darting ahead quickly while others simply crawl along. Multiply that image by thousands, shrink the region down to the size of a human skull, and put it on fast forward – and you begin to get a feel for the complexity of the brain’s connectivity.

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