A mysterious brain network may underlie many psychiatric disorders

illustration of a brain in front of a orange, shiny circuit board design
Scientists uncovered a previously unknown brain circuit that seems linked to multiple psychiatric disorders. (Image credit: John M Lund Photography Inc via Getty Images)

Scientists have uncovered a mysterious network of brain connections that is linked to several psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

This shared brain circuitry could help reveal why many patients who are diagnosed with one psychiatric illness also meet the criteria for a second. 

"Half of the people we treat meet criteria for more than one disorder," Dr. Joseph Taylor (opens in new tab), clinical director of transcranial magnetic stimulation at the Brigham and Women's Hospital's Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics in Boston and first author of a study describing the discovery, told Live Science. The study, published Thursday (Jan. 12) in the journal Nature Human Behaviour (opens in new tab), supports the idea that disorders that often occur together may stem from the same neurobiological roots. 

In total, the study identified six disorders — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, OCD and anxiety — that share this underlying circuitry, and "we suspect that other psychiatric disorders may also be linked to the same network," said Taylor, who is also an associate psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

The newfound circuit is not one that's previously been identified or named by scientists, such as the so-called default mode network and salience network. Some "nodes" in the circuit have been linked to psychiatric disorders in the past, while others have not and are instead linked to key aspects of cognitive function, like selective attention and sensory processing, Taylor said. Unraveling how the circuit works could clarify how deficits in these functions might factor into various psychiatric illnesses and potentially make them likely to occur together.

Related: 'Universal language network' identified in the brain 

Crucially, "these data point to the need to consider this shared neurobiology at the circuit level rather than at the level of the individual brain region," said Deanna Barch (opens in new tab), a professor of psychological and brain sciences, psychiatry and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the study. In other words, scientists need to study the brain's wiring, not just the distinct brain structures that all those wires plug into, Barch told Live Science in an email.

To map out this complex wiring, the researchers first pulled data from more than 190 studies of gray matter differences between people with psychiatric disorders and people without psychiatric disorders. 

Named for its color, the brain's gray matter is made up of the bodies of brain cells, or neurons, and the uninsulated wiring that extends from those cells. (White matter, by contrast, appears white due to an insulating layer of fat that covers its nerve fibers.) Gray matter is found in the wrinkled outer surface of the brain, the cerebral cortex, as well as in some structures beneath the cortex.

The team pinpointed brain regions where gray matter had atrophied, or shrunk, in the context of psychiatric disorders. Two structures in the cerebral cortex — the anterior cingulate and the insula — cropped up often in these analyses, but in general, the patterns of atrophy were not consistent across the six disorders studied, the team found. 

But remarkably, the disorders still had something in common: the tangled network of wires that runs between all these pockets of atrophy in the brain. The team discovered this by placing all of the atrophied gray matter regions within a map of the brain's wiring, known as a "connectome (opens in new tab)"; a different research team previously constructed this connectome using brain scans from 1,000 people without psychiatric disorders. 

All of the atrophied regions hooked up to a common brain network. 

"Thus, even when the specific brain regions that show altered gray matter might differ across some disorders, they seem to link to a common circuit across disorders," Barch explained. Although the team identified this physical circuit, they haven't yet determined how signals within the circuit differ between disorders, she added. The question is, are all six disorders linked to similar functional changes within the circuit, as compared with people without psychiatric disorders?

The existing connectome does provide some hints as to how different nodes within the circuit relate to one another. For example, some linked brain regions coordinate activity, meaning when one becomes more active, the other does too, and vice versa; other regions show the opposite relationship, where one region gets quiet as the other lights up. 

Once scientists better understand the role of the circuit in different disorders, it may be possible for doctors to treat psychiatric symptoms by tuning activity in one part of the network, Taylor suggested. For example, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) — a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate neurons in the brain and has been approved as a treatment for depression, OCD and smoking cessation — could be used to this end.

"Right now, TMS is used for one disorder at a time," Taylor said. But the new study suggests that doctors could potentially identify new TMS targets that would treat multiple disorders at once, by either turning the volume up or down in one part of the circuit. 

"It gives you some idea of which direction to push or pull," Taylor said of the research. While TMS treatments for multiple disorders are still theoretical, both Taylor and Barch said such treatments could be possible in the future.

Nicoletta Lanese
News Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is a news editor on Live Science's health desk. She first joined the publication in 2019 as a staff writer. She holds degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in The Scientist Magazine, Science News, The San Jose Mercury News and Mongabay, among other outlets.

  • chicocliff
    Hmmm? The reason that psychiatric patients receive comorbid diagnoses, is that psychological constructs lack construct validity. It's like measuring disappointment vs. sadness---the two ideas are not separate and cannot be used as independant variables. In fact, there is no inte-rater reliability between dsm constructs anyway. If you line up 100 clinicians and have them assess the same person, you will not receive any scientific agreement. Also, brain networks, energy, electricity, whatever you want to call it, is merely another way of measuring the same observation. So in other words, if I wake up everyday and tell you that I have a strong worry that I ran over someone, I will possibly be diagnosed with ocd, if I meet all criteria and I present consistently, and remember that no two clinicians agree on this and then if we measure the brain, guess what we will see.......that same pattern. That basically says nothing. And if you doubt that, would you want to live in a world, where we could use some quick intervention to make a brain stop worrying?? I suppose if you're depression is bad enough, the answer is "yes". But rest assured that it will return in a different flavor, because most of the causes of these disorders are due to trauma, misattunment, relational rejection, and basically fear. If you keep chasing all these symptoms and concepts around in circles, you will either have fun like a dog and it's tail or maybe finally tire and re-think things. Just my two cents.
    Reply
  • qtippio1992
    chicocliff said:
    Hmmm? The reason that psychiatric patients receive comorbid diagnoses, is that psychological constructs lack construct validity. It's like measuring disappointment vs. sadness---the two ideas are not separate and cannot be used as independant variables. In fact, there is no inte-rater reliability between dsm constructs anyway. If you line up 100 clinicians and have them assess the same person, you will not receive any scientific agreement. Also, brain networks, energy, electricity, whatever you want to call it, is merely another way of measuring the same observation. So in other words, if I wake up everyday and tell you that I have a strong worry that I ran over someone, I will possibly be diagnosed with ocd, if I meet all criteria and I present consistently, and remember that no two clinicians agree on this and then if we measure the brain, guess what we will see.......that same pattern. That basically says nothing. And if you doubt that, would you want to live in a world, where we could use some quick intervention to make a brain stop worrying?? I suppose if you're depression is bad enough, the answer is "yes". But rest assured that it will return in a different flavor, because most of the causes of these disorders are due to trauma, misattunment, relational rejection, and basically fear. If you keep chasing all these symptoms and concepts around in circles, you will either have fun like a dog and it's tail or maybe finally tire and re-think things. Just my two cents.


    Yes, fear is the underlying cause. These disorders are all protection mechanisms tailored to the type of underlying hereditary and environmental trauma experienced. Of course with some "random/chance" variable factor added in, because this was never meant to be a perfect world no matter how hard we try. But it's either listen to Jesus and accept that we need to resurrect each other when we "die" because Him and his resurrection/life giving spirit still remains for faithful believers in what we understand as his teachings (for humanity as a common church). We either lay down across/on top of and grab their hands to resurrect them as the Bible states Jesus did; or activate those networks by emulating the end result with ECT or psylocybin, and/or stimulant drugs (death reversed in tarot) to mimic the end result of (DMT; the "spirit" molecule released prior to natural mortality/death) so we can have temporarily enhanced/restored cognitive/executive/physical function via simultaneous activation and/or (re-)activation of normal levels of electrical activity.

    dineoes l... AKA "being woken from our slumber".
    Reply
  • qtippio1992
    qtippio1992 said:
    Yes, fear is the underlying cause. These disorders are all protection mechanisms tailored to the type of underlying hereditary and environmental trauma experienced. Of course with some "random/chance" variable factor added in, because this was never meant to be a perfect world no matter how hard we try. But it's either listen to Jesus and accept that we need to resurrect each other when we "die" because Him and his resurrection/life giving spirit still remains for faithful believers in what we understand as his teachings (for humanity as a common church). We either lay down across/on top of and grab their hands to resurrect them as the Bible states Jesus did; or activate those networks by emulating the end result with ECT or psylocybin, and/or stimulant drugs (death reversed in tarot) to mimic the end result of (DMT; the "spirit" molecule released prior to natural mortality/death) so we can have temporarily enhanced/restored cognitive/executive/physical function via simultaneous activation and/or (re-)activation of normal levels of electrical activity.

    dineoes l... AKA "being woken from our slumber".


    OR... do you have any alternatives to Jesus' teachings OR current medical approach that does on way beyond beyond counseling and can come ask why here after dark and we behaviorial therapy/CBT?
    Reply
  • Toothygrin
    A study of the brains of religious idiots would be fascinating. There's an undeniably strong interplay of fear, delusion and stupidity coming from those quarters.

    Evangelical bohos like the one responding to chicocliff's comment exemplifies the horror that has been happening throughout history where religious dingbats have been allowed to terrorise freely people of different religious persuasions. Atheists bear the brunt of the bible thumping. Some of the religious bohos hound individuals by organising themselves into groups that follow their victims in public places. The trauma caused by such behaviour is real. And the behaviour I describe coming from these idiots is nothing short of harassment. They make themselves exceedingly unlikeable and they think they're doing good work. Such is the degree of their delusion. Rejection of any or every aspect of the hogwash is taken as a personal affront and they want revenge.

    Rejecting them and the abuse that comes from them and their religion doesn't make people unholy or mentally defunct. Maybe instead of harassing people they should look deep and honestly ask themselves if their belief in resurrection and eternal life did not spring from their fear of death. It's the same reason many people procreate - pass on their genes so they don't disappear into nothingness and oblivion. It's the fear of death and vanity that keep the dastardly stupid popping mini people that they then mould into insipid adults like themselves. Religious leaders and institutions prey on stupid because they are rank and because stupid begs for it.

    They used to be content with labelling critics and dissenters of their beliefs witches, demons, possessed, and everything else along the line of all that is unholy. But then they've been called out for being simple and blanketing the religion under heaps of superstition and hoodoo. The result is an attempt to come across all scientific and intellectual. That too fails miserably, like the attempt to draw people to Christianity. First they taint religion with hoodoo, then they taint science with religious hogwash. There is nothing so revolting as stupidity. Please do your own hoodoo and leave others be. It's sickening finding religious nitwits muddying non-religious literature.

    Oh, one more point I wish to make is that some people are owls. It does not mean they need CBT. Another example I see of qtippio and their ilk displaying an intolerance of people who are not like them. Or shall I put it down to sheer ignorance.
    Reply
  • justintime
    Toothygrin said:
    A study of the brains of religious idiots would be fascinating. There's an undeniably strong interplay of fear, delusion and stupidity coming from those quarters.

    Evangelical bohos like the one responding to chicocliff's comment exemplifies the horror that has been happening throughout history where religious dingbats have been allowed to terrorise freely people of different religious persuasions. Atheists bear the brunt of the bible thumping. Some of the religious bohos hound individuals by organising themselves into groups that follow their victims in public places. The trauma caused by such behaviour is real. And the behaviour I describe coming from these idiots is nothing short of harassment. They make themselves exceedingly unlikeable and they think they're doing good work. Such is the degree of their delusion. Rejection of any or every aspect of the hogwash is taken as a personal affront and they want revenge.

    Sounds like one for the the moral police
    They're a problem here in Australia.
    Reply
  • RBroadReilly
    My son was diagnosed with grey matter heterotopia at age 15 after he started having seizures. He had previously been diagnosed with aspergers syndrome, Melnick Frasier Syndrome, Duanes Syndrome, etc. He is now 30 and I was wondering if there were any neurologists, doctors, etc in the Birmingham, Alabama area that know about this type of diagnosis and know how to treat a patient with this.

    I appreciate your help.

    Regina
    Reply