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Strengthening brain connections to improve treatments

Research awardFellows Award programme

Funding period2017 - 2020

InstitutionUniversity of Minnesota

LocationUnited States of America

Dr Patrick Rothwell is investigating whether strengthening the connections in the brain can help us develop better mental health treatments.

The project

Neuroscientists understand far more about the parts of the brain affected by mental illness than they did a few decades ago, but this knowledge has yet to be translated into more effective treatments.

Dr Patrick Rothwell and his team at the University of Minnesota are looking to change that. By using cutting-edge neuroscience, they want to investigate whether conditions such as addiction and depression can be effectively treated by strengthening the connections between different parts of the brain.  

The process

Patrick’s research will take a new approach to tackling problems like addiction and depression. Rather than trying to directly reverse the brain changes associated with mental illness – through drug treatments, for example – the team will try to counteract changes by encouraging the brain to compensate, by developing stronger connections between cells.

In their lab, the researchers will test different approaches, exploring in animal models whether it’s possible to stimulate the brain to strenghten connections in a way that influences specific behaviours. This will include things like impulse control or attention span – both of which can be affected by mental illness – and which may also prove to be impacted by treatment.

Their plan is to examine the effects of a variety of treatments used in clinical care – some drug-based, others based on behavioural therapies – and assess their impact on the brain.

The potential

Patrick’s research will help us to understand more about how pathways in the brain affect specific behaviour of people with mental health problems. If this study is successful, it could lead to improved mental health treatments and may even help to create new ones.

His findings have the potential to transform how we respond to mental illness, by identifying which mental health treatments stimulate specific areas of the brain – and are therefore most likely to help people recover.

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