Most people have intense emotional reactions when faced with traumatizing events like road accidents or war. But some suffer far longer, caught in the grip of long-term debilitating disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Since doctors so far cannot predict who is most susceptible to these disorders, early or preventive intervention is not available.
A new project led by researchers at Tel Aviv University seeks to identify pre-traumatic patients — people who are more susceptible to long-standing disorders if exposed to a traumatic incident.
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The project is a joint work between Prof. Talma Hendler of TAU’s School of Psychological Sciences, the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the new Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Prof. Nathan Intrator of TAU’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science and the Sagol School of Neuroscience.
The researchers use electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the areas of the brain that regulate the emotional response to traumatic stress. Then, they decode the brain functionality that indicates pre- or post-trauma psychopathology.
According to the researchers, it is a powerful and novel approach to probing the susceptible brain and providing ongoing monitoring tailored to each individual.
Reading emotions in brain activity
Beyond their diagnostic capabilities, the research findings could be used to monitor people who will be at high risk for developing these disorders, such as soldiers in combat units.
The earlier and more accurately PTSD is diagnosed, the more likely a healthcare provider can treat it. Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders depends on understanding how the brain encodes and regulates emotions. For example, certain combinations of activities in emotional and cognitive brain areas may better indicate an individual’s susceptibility to traumatic disorders than studying each area by itself.
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To look at the interactions between areas of the brain, study participants were monitored using EEG, which records electrical activity along the scalp, and fMRI, which measures changes in blood oxygenation in the brain. Connections between the emotional and cognitive areas of the brain were recorded as subjects were exposed to continuous stimulations designed to cause stress and other emotional effects such as horror and sadness.
Using advanced computational algorithms, the researchers identified the brain activity that was connected to the reported emotional experience. This brain marking will provide targets for therapeutic procedures based on a person’s individual brain activity.
With these experiments, the researchers hope to improve their ability to read emotional states in the depths of the human brain. While they are currently working with EEG and fMRI, Prof. Intrator hopes that in the later stages of development they will be able to read results collected by EEG alone.
Initial findings were recently presented at the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference and published in the journals Brain Connectivity and Neuroimage.
Portable monitoring machine
Ultimately, the researchers hope to develop a portable brain monitoring machine that will “enable the detection or quantification of the emotional state of people suffering from trauma,” allowing for minimally invasive monitoring or diagnosis, says Prof. Intrator. He is working on applying this technology to the diagnosis of additional psychological disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and attention deficit disorder (ADD) for the better management of these diseases. In the case of ADD, for example, this method could be used to monitor the level of concentration in a patient, and provide feedback that could help to regulate the patient’s medicinal needs, such as the dosage of Ritalin.
Some of these projects are part of the newly-formed Israel Brain Technology (IBT) initiative, launched by Israeli President Shimon Peres and run by entrepreneur Rafi Gidron. IBT leverages technology and knowledge from Israeli universities to help Israel become a power player in neurotechnology.
Photo by Petter Kallioinen