Psychiatric illness ‘explained’: Disorders of CNS Connectivity

The power of the nervous system:


The astonishing power of the nervous system does not reside in a single neuron. (That said, an advanced supercomputer is required for the task of modelling the processing power of even a single neuron).

Nervous tissue is immensely powerful because of the rich connectivity between neurons. A 1mm voxel of cerebral cortex (a standard fMRI unit), contains ~300 million synaptic connections and ~50 thousand neurons [ref].  Scaled up to the whole human brain, there are estimated to be several hundred trillion synaptic connections within a total pool of ~100 billion neurons. Neuronal networks are the foundation of, perception, movement, thinking, memory and the personality.

Network learning

A crucial property of neuronal networks is that they learn from experience. Experience may stem from the external world (sensation) or the inner world. Learning is achieved by adjusting the strength of the connections between neurons. New connections can form, and weak connections wither away – essentially a process of re-wiring. Taking up a musical instrument or a new language, for example, constitutes a major re-wiring exercise, although higher, more mysterious faculties – such as selfhood, agency and individual identity – are already wired-up in infancy, and remain a foundation throughout life, except if threatened by the most severe psychiatric disorders.

Alzheimer’s disease is the prototypical example of a network illness. Progressive       shrivelling of the network mirrors the decline of the faculties, from initial problems with memory right up to the disintegration of selfhood.

Network health

Network health is vital for mental health. The stabilisation of essential connections, the formation of new connections and the controlled elimination of redundant connections involves many components.

  • There are components which span the gap between nerve terminals and dendritic spines to ensure that connections remain tightly bound [link].
  • There are signalling pathways which control the dynamic, flexible actin scaffold which give terminals and spines their anatomical structure.
  • There is, ready-to-hand, protein-synthesis machinery for making additional spines as learning proceeds.
  • Finally, and most recently explored, there are mechanisms for ‘clearing up’ the debris when connections are no longer required. Such components (microglia, complement proteins) are much more familiar in their role as immune cells and immune signals, but their role extends beyond inflammation. Microglia and complement are now recognised as key components in the wiring of the brain as it learns and develops.

Major psychiatric illness

dendritic spine

Where those components involved in the function and structure of synaptic connections are defective, psychiatric illness can result. Mutations in the components which bind the nerve terminal and dendritic spine are a cause of autism. The cause of many learning disability cases, hitherto unknown, are mutations in proteins which control the actin scaffold. The psychiatric manifestations of Fragile X syndrome (intellectual deficits / autistic features / hyperactivity) result from abnormal protein synthesis in dendritic spines and subsequent abnormal local wiring.


Microglia & complement proteins

pink-eatme-cake-topperThe latest components to receive attention, as pertains to psychiatric illness are the microglia and their signalling pathways, specifically complement proteins.

Complement proteins function as a tag, essentially an ‘eat-me’ signal, on synapses destined for elimination. The tag is recognised by the phagocytic microglia which engulf and clear the redundant synaptic elements [link].

Although the role of immune components in psychiatric illness has become a hot topic, many researchers are still accustomed to regard microglia and complement in the context of inflammation rather than CNS re-wiring. Both major depression and schizophrenia, have been linked with abnormal immune components, but neither disorder is inflammatory in the same sense as encephalitis or meningitis. The main histological finding in schizophrenia is decreased connectivity between neurons, not inflamed nervous tissue. Similarly, an anatomical correlate of depression is impoverished connectivity in the hippocampus, not inflammation.

A major development in Alzheimer’s research has been the recognition of up-regulated complement proteins and microglial phagocytosis commensurate with the loss of neuronal connections. The crucial observation is that such changes occur prior to amyloid deposition and tangle formation [link]. Alzheimer’s appears to be a disorder of runaway synaptic loss. Drug discovery efforts are aimed at blocking complement protein receptors to protect synapses [link].

Schizophrenia has been associated with changes in the genes coding for a specific complement protein (C4A). Knockout of the C4A gene in an animal model causes a marked alteration in the pruning of synaptic connections in later life [link]. Schizophrenia, albeit to a far less extent than Alzheimer’s, is regarded as a disorder of impoverished connectivity, (whereas Autism is associated with increased dendritic spines and increased connectivity) [link].

Hold on –  what about the ‘dominant’ wet-ware hypotheses?


An older generation of psychiatric researchers may ask where dopamine [link]] and perhaps glutamate [link] fit into a model of psychiatric illness in which abnormal connectivity between neurons appears to carry robust explanatory power. Earlier models posited that an excess or deficiency of neurotransmitter or receptors lay at the root of major depression and schizophrenia. Such models stemmed from the relatively primitive knowledge of the synapse available at the time (circa 1965-1975). Then, the hot topics in neuroscience were; the nature of neurotransmitter release (Sir Bernard Katz, UCL) and the ‘visualisation’ of receptors (Solomon Snyder, John Hopkins).

The answer (to the question of how glutamate and dopamine are accommodated) is fairly straightforward: Glutamate (finally admitted to the neurotransmitter club circa 1983-87) is the fast neurotransmitter between nerve terminals and dendritic spines, throughout nervous tissue. Dopamine determines the strength of the connection between the glutamate terminal and the dendritic spine within specific CNS structures. Dopamine functions as a teaching signal; adjusting connectivity and promoting learning in higher centres.

Frontier psychiatry


The obvious strategy of searching for molecules which can impact on connectivity is well underway.

That said, existing psychiatric treatments, such as antidepressants, lithium and dopamine antipsychotics have an impact upon connectivity to the extent that structural changes can already be detected, albeit in a population of patients rather than the individual, with routine MRI scans. Drugs impact upon plasticity: Drugs impact upon CNS structure.

A more basic question goes back to the very roots of modern psychiatry. The question is whether, for some, the neuronal networks are destined to be unwell from the outset (endogenous psychiatric illness), or if, for others, adverse experiences during development cause the network to wire-up pathologically (exogenous psychiatric illness). Then again, there is the third position, in which the choreography between the neuronal hardware and the external environment determines who will succumb to psychiatric syndromes. Whatever the proximal cause(s), endogenous or exogenous, major psychiatric illness appears to stem from abnormal connectivity within neuronal networks.

Zapping the Blues: The effectiveness of magnetic and electrical stimulation for treatment-resistant depression.

Blake glad day

Treatment-resistant depression (TRD) affects 1-3% of the population. Recently Holtzheimer & Mayberg reviewed the effectiveness of a range of new and promising techniques based on direct neural stimulation. The list includes Transcranial magnetic stimulation, Transcranial direct current stimulation, Magnetic seizure therapy, Vagus nerve stimulation and Deep brain stimulation.

The prototype of course is ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), which is a highly effective treatment for melancholic depression, but suffers from the effects of a negative historical portrayal. The authors present a balanced and elegant appraisal of the current state of affairs for the new techniques which can be read here in full. The summary points are as follows…

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TCMS)

– FDA (US food & drug administration) approved.

– Uses rapidly alternating magnetic fields to induce current in the underlying cortex.

– 10 to 30 treatment sessions over 2-6 weeks.

– Controlled trials have been positive.

– Response rates in TRD: 20-40%.

– Remission rates in TRD: 10-20%.

– Repeated courses may maintain initial benefits.

Transcranial direct current stimulation

– Delivers a low-intensity direct current to the underlying cortex.

– 5 times per week treatments for several weeks.

– Fewer side effects than TCMS?

– Antidepressant effects claimed from a small number of open and controlled studies.

– Response, remission & relapse rates are unclear.

Magnetic seizure therapy

– Seizures are induced using a transcranial magnetic stimulation device.

– Antidepressant effects from a small number of open studies.

– Claims for less side-effects than ECT, but may be less effective.

Vagus nerve stimulation

– FDA (US food & drug administration) approved.

– Electrical stimulation to the left vagus nerve through an implanted pulse generator.

– Open-label response rates in TRD: 30-40%.

– Open-label remission rates in TRD: 15-17%.

– No evidence for efficacy in a large controlled study.

– Simple surgical procedure.

Deep brain stimulation.

– Precise neurosurgical implantation of electrodes using stereotactic techniques.

– Remission rates in TRD: 40-60%.

– Relapse in remitted patients is uncommon.

– Complex surgical procedure.

Holtzheimer & Mayberg conclude, “Neuromodulation for depression is at an exciting and promising stage of development, and continued well-conducted research will help clarify and realize its potential“.


Ketamine for resistant depression: Outstanding promise, outstanding issues.

Outstanding Promise.

Ketamine has been around for many years, firstly as a dissociative anaesthetic and then as a psychedelic drug. But it might become best known for it's powerful antidepressant properties (Berman et al 2000; Zarate et al 2006). Compared to existing antidepressants, which take around 2 weeks to work, ketamine exerts a large antidepressant effect on the first day of treatment.

depression ketamine murrough

Figure 1: The antidepressant effect of ketamine over 6 treatment sessions. The improvement on day 1 (measured using the MADRAS scale) was predictive of the response achieved following the sixth treatment session.

The robust antidepressant effect of ketamine also occurs in patients who have not found relief with existing drugs or with ECT. In the latest study to be reported, 24 patients with treatment-resistant depression underwent up to 6 sessions of intravenous ketamine (0.5mg/Kg in 40 mins) over ~2 weeks. Over 70% of patients responded to ketamine, and the overall reduction in depression was large and rapid (Murrough et al 2013) (Figure 1).

Outstanding Issues.

To date a major issue has been the lack of persistence of the antidepressant effect. In previous studies, involving a single ketamine treatment, depression returned within one week of the session or less. In the study by Murrough et al, this was extended to an average of 18 days. This is an improvement, but further work will be needed to solve the problem of the relatively short-lived antidepressant effect of ketamine.

An understanding of the mechanism by which ketamine alleviates depression may be necessary if we are to extend the duration of it's beneficial effects. Pre-clinical work suggests that ketamine boosts the health and integrity of synapses and neuronal networks. Much of the action is believed to take place within dendritic spines, and involves local protein synthesis (Duman et al 2012) (Figure2).

ketamine mechanism

Figure 2: The antidepressant effects of ketamine may depend upon activation of mTOR and local protein synthesis in dendritic spines.

Two molecules of relevance are mTOR and GSK-3. Ketamine enhances local protein synthesis by activating mTOR and by inhibiting GSK-3. [GSK-3 inhibits mTOR]. A drug, such as lithium, which inhibits GSK-3 might enhance the antidepressant effect of ketamine. This has now been demonstrated in pre-clinical studies (Liu et al 2013). The clinical question, which will now be addressed in trials is whether lithium treatment extends and enhances the antidepressant effects of ketamine. Lithium has been used for treatment-resistant depression for many years, and has a good evidence base (Bauer et al 2010) so that the combination of ketamine and lithium presents as an interesting and relatively straightforward strategy for stubborn depression.

However it is somewhat odd that the proposed mechanism for ketamine involves new protein synthesis and synaptogenesis (which take time, and are sustained) whereas the clinical effects of ketamine are very rapid (and transient). Other mechanisms may have more explanatory power. For instance a recent fMRI study showed that ketamine decreased the connectivity of limbic and prefrontal regions which are known to be overactive in depression (Scheidegger et al 2012). More provocatively, it appears that the antidepressant effect of ketamine depends upon the extent of the acute psychological reaction produced by the drug. Although the dissociative/psychedelic properties of ketamine are sometimes regarded as unwanted “side-effects”, a recent paper showed that the acute psychedelic and subsequent antidepressant effects are related (Sos et al 2013).

Psychosis Research. Where have we been & where are we going?

phenotype and genotype

The Institute of Psychiatry at The Maudsley is the largest centre for psychiatric research in Europe. Recently a group of leading researchers were tasked with summarising an area of research as it pertains to psychosis and psychopharmacology.

The outcome was a series of short lectures, delivered to a lively audience of psychiatrists, mental health workers and psychologists at The Maudsley. The lecture slides and audio are now available below and constitute a unique training resource for those who treat patients.

1. Sir Robin Murray,
Psychosis research: Deconstructing the dogma
2. David Taylor,
Current Psychopharmacology: Facts & Fiction
3. Oliver Howes,
How can we Treat psychosis better?
4. Marta DiForti,
An idiot's guide to psychiatric genetics
5. Sameer Jauhar,
Ten psychosis papers to read before you die!
6. Paul Morrison,
Future antipsychotics


Natural antidepressants & new brain cells

New Brain Cells

In the last decade it has become clear that new cells can form in the adult brain. This happens in a region known as the hippocampal complex. The hippocampal complex is found deep inside either temple and is crucial for memory and emotion. The hippocampal complex inhibits the human stress response, but can itself be damaged by persistent stress, leading to a vicious cycle in which the stress response is amplified further and depression ensues.

hippocampus from nieuwenhuys et al

The hippocampal complex is found in the temporal lobe, and has a crucial role in regulating the stress response.

Experimental work suggests that neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) in the hippocampal complex is vital for the action of conventional antidepressant drugs. Exercise and enriched environments also promote neurogenesis, whilst stress has the opposite effect.The current picture is that hippocampal health (including the birth of new neurons) is essential for protecting the organism against the effects of stress, so that if hippocampal functioning is compromised, anxiety and depression can emerge.


Natural Antidepressants

There has been recent interest in the antidepressant properties of a natural molecule called curcumin. This substance is found in the herb turmeric. As well as a foodstuff, turmeric has been used for centuries in traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda). In pre-clinical studies, curcumin exhibited clear antidepressant effects.


Research has focused on the mechanism of action of curcumin. Remarkably it appears that curcumin can also increase the birth of new neurons in the hippocampal complex. This is an intriguing finding which hints at the possibility of a new class of antidepressant drug.

A new paper from researchers at King's College London provides an excellent summary of work in this area. The full paper can be read here.