The human brain operates much the same whether a person is at rest or performing a variety of tasks, according to new research from Rutgers University-Newark. This finding will make it easier to study severe mental illness, since scientists can be certain that what they observe on a brain at rest is there all the time.
“It is easier to analyze a brain at rest,” says Michael Cole, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience. He conducted the study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
“We can now observe people relaxing in the scanner and be confident that what we see is there all the time,” said Cole, who initially wondered whether the brain reorganized itself for every task. “If that had been the case, we would have had less hope that we could understand mental illness in our lifetime.”
“Now scientists can better hone in on the possible causes of mental illness,” said Cole. He suggests at least one target of opportunity: the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is involved in high level thinking.
Cole believes that scientists should investigate whether connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain is altered — while the brain is at rest — in people with severe mental illness.
“And then we can finally say something fundamental,” he says, “about what’s different about the brain’s functional network in schizophrenia and other conditions.”
Those differences, he believes, could explain particular symptoms. For example, what if a patient has visual hallucinations because of poor connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the region of the brain that regulates sight?
Cole suggests that this is just one possible scenario that could be answered by studying the brain at rest. Others include a patient’s harmful beliefs, such as an overly negative self-view when depressed.
Studying the brain at rest might lead to new important findings that could greatly improve the lives of patients with severe mental illness. Cole noted that rarely do current medications for severe mental illness relieve cognitive symptoms.
Although some drugs help reduce hallucinations or depressing thoughts, patients continue to have difficulty concentrating on the task at hand, and often find it difficult to find or hold a job. Cole hopes his research will shed new light on the workings behind severe mental illness.
The research is published in the journal Neuron.