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Study shows children at risk for mental disorders experience communication breakdown in brain networks supporting attention

May 30, 2014

DETROIT – Attention deficits are central to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and are thought to precede the presentation of the illnesses. A new study led by Wayne State University School of Medicine researcher Vaibhav Diwadkar, Ph.D. suggests that the brain network interactions between regions that support attention are dysfunctional in children and adolescents at genetic risk for developing schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“The brain network mechanisms that mediate these deficits are poorly understood, and have rarely been tackled using complex image analytic methods that focus on how brain regions communicate,” said Dr. Diwadkar, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences and co-director of the department’s Brain Imaging Research Division

The desire to understand dysfunctional brain mechanisms motivated Dr. Diwadkar and his team of colleagues and WSU medical students in the study titled, "Dysfunction and dysconnection in cortical-striatal networks during sustained attention: genetic risk for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and its impact on brain network function,” featured in the May issue of Frontiers in Psychiatry.

The study is clinically significant because the estimated lifetime incidence of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in the groups studied is approximately 10-20 times what is generally observed. “We believe that genetic risk may confer vulnerability for dysfunctional brain network communication. This abnormal network communication in turn might amplify risk for psychiatric illnesses. By identifying markers of network dysfunction we believe we can elucidate these mechanisms of risk. This knowledge may in turn increase focus on possible premeditative intervention strategies,” Dr. Diwadkar said.

The researchers identified dysfunctional brain mechanisms of sustained attention using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging data and complex modeling of fMRI signals. Data were collected in 46 children and adolescents ages 8 to 20, half at genetic risk for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder by virtue of having one or both parents with either illness. During the 20-minute fMRI, participants completed a sustained attention task, adapted to engage specific brain regions.

The researchers induced variations in the degree of demand on these brain regions – a method of assessing how genetic risk might impair the brain’s ability to respond to attention challenges – by varying task difficulty. Increased attention demand led to increased engagement in the typical control group. The genetically at-risk group did not respond the same. Instead, interactions between the dorsal anterior cingulate, a principal control region in the brain, and the basal ganglia were highly dysfunctional in that group, suggesting impaired communication between specific brain networks.

The study indicates that brain networks supporting basic psychological functions such as attention do not communicate appropriately in young individuals at genetic risk for illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“Genetics and neurodevelopment are inextricably linked. How psychiatric illnesses emerge from their combination is a central question in medicine.  Analytic tools developed in the last few years offer the promise of answers at the level of how these processes impact brain network communication,” Dr. Diwadkar said.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH6860), the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Children’s Research Center of Michigan, the Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Prechter Pediatric Bipolar Program World Heritage Foundation, the Lycaki-Young Fund from the state of Michigan and a Career Development Chair Award from the WSU Office of the President. The MRI examinations were performed at WSU’s Vainutis Vaitkevicius, M.D., Magnetic Resonance Research Facility, located at the Detroit Medical Center’s Harper University Hospital.

About Wayne State University School of Medicine

Founded in 1868, the Wayne State University School of Medicine is the largest single-campus medical school in the nation with more than 1,000 medical students. In addition to undergraduate medical education, the school offers master’s degree, doctoral and M.D.-Ph.D. programs in 14 areas of basic science to about 400 students annually. Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter @wsu_med_school and Pinterest.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering more than 370 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 28,000 students.

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