Olin Research Center Undertaking Wide Array of Studies

Attracting almost $40 million in grant funding in its 17-year existence, the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center has become a driving force for the advancement of diagnostic and treatment tools for behavioral health disorders and addiction.

According to founding director Godfrey Pearlson, MD, the four separate labs that make up Olin are focused on various aspects of cognitive function — memory, language, attention and aging — in depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, manic-depressive illness and substance abuse. Researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electro-encephalography (EEG), genetics and other tools to study brain activity that can help understand and even predict behavior.

To promote the work being done at Olin, BHNews will regularly feature different research projects. As an overview, Dr. Pearlson described the following key projects from among many in process or being reported out of the Center’s labs.

A series of studies into ways to identify marijuana intoxication in drivers. As marijuana is legalized in more states for recreational or medicinal use, there will be a greater need for tools that law enforcement officials can use to identify those who are a danger behind the wheel. The tools used to detect illegal levels of alcohol do not work with marijuana.

A grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse is funding Olin research into brain activity when someone has used marijuana acutely. A second grant, from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, is financing a look into roadside tests that could identify the presence of marijuana through brainwaves measured in EEG and transmitted via Bluetooth and an iPod-like device to measure body movement associated with marijuana intoxication. Still another grant is being used to develop an app that would scan a person’s pupils with a smartphone and read their heart rate through a small bracelet, giving law enforcement key indicators of sobriety.

Ongoing work as part of the Bipolar and Schizophrenia Network on Intermediate Phenotypes (BSNIP) consortium through which five sites across the country are studying 50 biological measures of patients with major mental illness to develop a biological fingerprint for each disease. Three distinct “biotypes” have been identified and the next step is developing unique treatments for each one.

Michael Stevens’, MD, lab focuses on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In the paper “Functional Neuroimaging Evidence for Distinct Neurobiological Pathways in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” he identifies three subgroups of ADHD with different associated brain dysfunctions despite similar clinical appearances. This information can guide providers to creating more tailored diagnoses and treatments for their patients.

“Longitudinal Influence of Alcohol and Marijuana Use on Academic Performance in College Students.” Drawing on a cohort of students at Trinity and Central Connecticut colleges in the Brain and Alcohol Research in College Students (BARCS) study, researchers led by Shashwath Meda, MD, published an article in PLOS One confirming earlier findings that moderate to heavy substance abuse led to lower grade point averages.

Drawing 600 students from the BARCS group, Alecia Dager, MD, led a team publishing “fMRI Response to Alcohol Pictures Predicts Subsequent Transition to Heavy Drinking in College Students.” Participants submitted to an electroencephalogram (EEG) test while being given visual cues and other tasks. Brain activity noted when images of alcohol were shown led researchers to assert they can predict which students would develop subsequent alcohol use problems.

Dr. Meda has also discovered that excessive alcohol consumption actually shrinks sections of the brain related to memory as outlined in the paper “Longitudinal Effects of Alcohol Consumption on the Hippocampus and Parahippocampus in College Students.”

Collaboration with HHC’s Bariatric/Metabolic Surgery division using functional MRI before surgery correctly predicted 69 percent of the 12-month post-surgical outcome in obese subjects undergoing bariatric surgery.