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The way our brains process information and stress can tell us a lot about how to treat mental illness

April 14, 2020
By Alexius Lampkin, Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology PhD student, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Mental illnesses have been prevalent for a while, but people did not understand how to identify and treat them. Now, mental illnesses are able to be identified and pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments are available. However, detailed etiology or causes of the diseases are still unknown so the question is: What changes in the brain of people diagnosed with a mental illness? Scientist from all fields are trying to answer this question. One scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Vaishali Bakshi, is tackling this question using neuropharmacology and behavioral neuroscience. Dr. Vaishali Bakshi’s says the goal of her lab is to “identify novel substrates in the brain which can be targeted for therapeutic treatment of mental illnesses.”

Dr. Bakshi uses prepulse inhibition (PPI), a mechanism to measure an organism’s ability to filter information as either necessary or unnecessary to pay attention to regarding survival to study the neural pathways that mediate information processing. An example of this is decreased response to a repeated stimuli such as someone’s car horn going off. This form of data collection is important in aiding the understanding of the dysfunction seen in schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A hallmark of these illnesses is the hyper-startle/hyperarousal effects to stimuli considered unnecessary. For example, when a car door is slammed or someone drops glass and it shatters people suffering from PTSD or schizophrenia will see this as a threat to their survival.  The inability to filter the information from the environment can trigger the “episodes” associated with these illnesses.

In order to determine which neural systems are affecting PPI, Dr. Bakshi uses psychoactive drugs which are administered to mice either systemically or directly into discrete brain sites and then tests whether PPI is disrupted or ameliorated. Disruption of PPI allows more of the sensory stimuli from our environments to be processed in our brains, thus making us more reactive to events that do not threaten our survival.  Coupling the pharmacological manipulations with chemogenetic manipulations, anatomical analysis, and behavioral assessments allows for comprehensive understanding of what discrete brain circuits do in regard to information processing. Her current focus is on the basolateral amygdala, as this brain region is associated with fear and behavioral responses necessary for survival.  Establishing this comprehensive picture is important when using the results to pinpoint that a specific neural pathway can be targeted for therapeutic interventions.

Taking things a step further and more applicable to today’s lifestyle, stress is brought into the equation. Dr. Bakshi is interested in the role that trauma-like stress plays in triggering or exacerbating already established mental illnesses. Stress can cause relapses in schizophrenia and PTSD which includes a worsening of deficits in information processing which can be measured by the PPI paradigm. She stated, “using pharmacological manipulations and PPI behavioral assessment allows the lab to study the neural substrates responsible for the deficits after stress exposure in animal models.” These neural substrates can then be targeted pharmacologically to protect against these deleterious events. Stress has become an everyday part of our life whether it is eustress (positive) or distress (negative). Chronic stress exposure, whether good or bad, can have many psychological and physical effects which can mask the fact that stress is the actual cause.

Mental health is a very important aspect of our overall health and lives. Take time to learn more about mental health and ways to cope with both positive and negative stress. Continuing to reduce the stigma around mental illness and encouraging people to get help or see a professional will help them live a healthier life. Be a listening ear and watch out for signs in people you know so that they do not feel alone in the process.

Photo credit:  Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

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