Government initiative recruits campus researchers to develop treatments for mental illness

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Researchers, including some from UC Berkeley, are working to find more effective methods of treating brain disorders through a $26 million project announced Tuesday as part of President Barack Obama’s initiative to uncover new treatments for brain disorders.

A team of researchers led by UCSF neurosurgeon Edward Chang will use the $26 million over the course of five years to develop a device that can manipulate brain activity to treat neuropsychiatric disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder, addiction and depression. The team is part of a greater collaboration that includes an East Coast team led by Emad Eskandar, an attending neurosurgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

“It’s a whole new era for medical devices. It’s a new area; it’s a new career; it’s a whole new kind of medicine,” Chang said. “We want to understand how the brain works under normal conditions and when it becomes affected by mental conditions.”

According to Chang, the field of medicine as a whole is evolving into the field of neural engineering, a field of science that seeks to understand and manipulate neural systems.

Funded by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the project was created to support Obama’s initiative to understand the brain more comprehensively and uncover new methods of treating brain disorders.

The researchers have a timeline of five years to develop brain implants that are hoped to be more effective. They have two years to show progress, and if the progress is sufficient enough, they will be given an additional three years to complete their projects, said Jonathan Wallis, a campus professor of psychology and neuroscience who is working with Chang.

“We want to record brain activity and record the different neurons interacting,” Chang said.

Researchers working on the project include those from the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses, a collaboration of researchers from UC Berkeley and UCSF that combines the campus’ strengths in psychology and engineering with UCSF’s medical expertise.

The goal, according to Wallis, is to implement technology that has been used to treat motor disorders to treat neuropsychiatric disorders.

By creating a brain implant that allows for a specific manipulation of the neural circuit, the researchers are hoping to control the neurons, stimulating neural circuits in the same way a pacemaker would stimulate a heart. The small implant would be placed on the surface of the brain, Chang said.

Neuropsychiatric disorders are treated with pharmaceutical and therapeutic means, which have limitations, Wallis said. Psychological therapy is expensive and does not work for everyone, while pharmaceutical drugs affect many functions in the brain and do not specifically target what needs to be treated, according to Wallis.

Though brain implants have been used in the past to treat neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, they were not effective, as these brain implants were not able to establish the patterns of electrical activity needed to communicate information encoded by neurons. Researchers hope the new brain implant design will be more sophisticated.

“We’re obviously proud to have this kind of project,” Chang said, adding that he would like to see graduating UC Berkeley seniors become involved in neural engineering.

Contact Lydia Tuan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.