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.

Why NMDA drugs keep failing in schizophrenia.

nmda receptor

The NMDA receptor. Glutamate and glycine are required for NMDA receptor activation. Activation involves the opening of a channel allowing calcium and sodium ions to flow into the neuron. Recent attempts to translate NMDA pharmacology into the clinic have focussed on the glycine site.

Twenty years ago it all looked so promising. The model was as follows: Learning and memory were clearly being driven by activity at the glutamate NMDA receptor. Boost the NMDA receptor by pharmacological means, and perhaps intellectual performance could be improved above baseline. The hope was that an NMDA enhancer might work in schizophrenia, which many had come to regard as a disorder of cognition. Yet the story has not played out as anticipated. The latest generation of NMDA enhancers, like their predecessors, has failed in schizophrenia [link]. And it is looking increasingly likely that the basic model [boost NMDA -> boost intellectual functioning] was overtly simplistic.

long term potentiation

Long Term Potentiation (LTP) is induced by NMDA receptor activation. The mechanism of early-phase LTP involves the enhancement of AMPA receptor conductances and insertion of new AMPA receptors into the post-synaptic membrane.

An recent review article by Collingridge and colleagues is worthy of study. Back in 1983, Collingridge had shown that activation of the glutamate NMDA receptor was the initial catalyst for the process of LTP (long-term-potentiation). At that time glutamate was only just gaining entry to the neurotransmitter club, whereas LTP [a process in which excitatory synapses become and remain stronger] had achieved fame ten years earlier as a likely substrate for learning and memory in nervous systems.

The discovery of NMDA-dependent LTP, as the phenomena came to be known, was the stimulus for an enormous, worldwide research effort into glutamate neurobiology. Since then, our knowledge of NMDA receptors has advanced, to the point where the complexity can be overwhelming [figure below]. But the medicines have not materialised. The biology appears to be several orders more complex than the model. Is that why the drugs have failed? In any case, the model [boost NMDA -> boost intellectual functioning] can now be safely abandoned with little risk of missing a major therapeutic breakthrough.

Intracellular modulation of NMDA receptors

Sites of intracellular modulation of NMDARs. Schematic representation of the distribution of selected posttranslational regulatory sites on the intracellular C-terminal domains of NMDAR subunits. Properties such as channel gating, receptor desensitisation and receptor shuttling are modulated by phosphorylation at key residues. Collingridge et al 2013


Recently the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health], the main funder of mental health research in the world, announced that they would no longer support clinical trials of new drugs unless there was a clear mechanistic advance at the same time:

“a positive result will require not only that an intervention ameliorated a symptom, but that it had a demonstrable effect on a target, such as a neural pathway implicated in the disorder or a key cognitive operation.”

The NMDA receptor story calls the logic of this approach into question. That story is the archetypal case in which a mechanism was clearly defined, and well supported after decades of preclinical research. Indeed the mechanism [the model] had become so appealing that many were reluctant to abandon it, even as it was becoming obvious that the therapeutics were not going to work. An overhaul of drug discovery in psychiatry is needed, but it will require to be more realistic than solving mechanism and efficacy problems concurrently. Pulling back the bureaucracy, the inflated costs and the micromanagement could be a more fruitful intervention.

Modafinil to boost academic performance: Effective, Addictive, Cheating?

Originally marketed as a wake-promoting agent, modafinil is a prescription drug that is said to boost cognition in healthy subjects. As such it’s use has spread amongst college students cramming for dreaded examinations. Anecdotal reports are of enhanced focus, clarity of thought and intellectual stamina; attractive properties for those hoping to secure a competitive edge for themselves.

But how do the pro-cognitive effects of modafinil stack up in proper scientific studies? Is modafinil addictive? And what ethical stance should be taken on the use of performance-enhancing agents in academic life?

Does modafinil enhance cognitive performance?

The first laboratory-based study of modafinil (single dose 100 or 200mg) in 2003 showed that it had clear pro-cognitive properties. Since then a further six studies have been in agreement, with performance enhancements in the domains of working memory, cognitive flexibility and planning.

A recent and elegant study carried out in Cambridge involving 64 healthy participants between the ages of 19-36 is illustrative [Muller et al 2012]. Participants were randomly allocated to receive modafinil (200mg) or placebo under experimental conditions, two hours ahead of a cognitive challenge. In addition to the usual measures of memory performance, task enjoyment was rated.

Performance in planning/problem solving under modafinil v placebo

The modafinil group achieved success with fewer choices in a task requiring cognitive planning. Performance enhancement was most apparent at the highest level of difficulty. Error bars are SEM.
From: Muller et al Neuropharmacology 64 (2013) 490-495.

The main findings were that the modafinil group out-performed the placebo group on tests of working memory, planning and pattern recognition memory. These improvements were more prominent as the cognitive tasks became more difficult.

And for the first time, it was shown that modafinil boosted enjoyment during the testing.

The authors postulated that the enjoyment could have arisen from the sense of satisfaction at task mastery or instead be the result of heightened motivation as a direct effect of the drug – surely now a topic for further study.

Is modafinil addictive?

The behavioural pharmacology of modafinil appears to stem from inhibition of the dopamine re-uptake transporter (DAT), akin to the mechanism of the classic [and addictive] stimulants, cocaine and amphetamine. However modafinil is a relatively weak inhibitor of DAT.

raclopride PET following modafinil

PET images of the human brain showing that compared to placebo, modafinil reduces raclopride binding in the striatum. The reduction in raclopride binding is indicative of dopamine release. Volkow et al (2009) JAMA 2009 301:1148-54

There are a number of behavioural differences between modafinil and the classical stimulants. Perhaps most notably, modafinil has a very low propensity for abuse (Wisor 2013). Indeed there was some hope that modafinil might actually constitute a treatment for cocaine/amphetamine addiction, but the findings to date in clinical trials have been disappointing.

Does the use of modafinil for exam revision constitute cheating?

Modafinil certainly confers a cognitive advantage, at least in the short term. And the downside in terms of addiction appears to be negligible, despite the pharmacological similarities of modafinil to ‘hard drugs’ such as cocaine and amphetamine.

The differences in cognitve performance under modafinil may be slight, and only apparent as the demands of the task increase. But isn’t this similar to the highest levels of sport, in which performance enhancing substances confer a critical edge as the competition reaches a climax.

The ethics of ‘smart drugs’ is complex [unlike the pharmacological questions above, which in contrast, can be settled by experiment, as well as reason]. One could argue that personal choice is all that matters. Surely the individual student should make their own judgement on whether to use, or abstain from, cognitive enhancers?  But is it only a personal matter? A decision to use smart drugs has a potential impact on the competition, the rest of the field. Is the use of modafinil, and the like, nothing other than cheating?

Cognitive disorders: the role of dendritic spines.

Neuronal plasticity:

A major contribution of neuroscience to the humanities is the knowledge that the structure of the brain is moulded by the experiences the mind goes through – the phenomenon known as plasticity. It means that the circuits of the brain are sculpted by habitat, schooling, language, relationships, and culture, as well as by the unfolding genetic programme. The action occurs below the micrometre scale – at synapses (the points of connection between neurons) – and involves the exquisite choreography of a number of molecular machines. These molecular processes are so fundamental for cognition that their failure (whether driven by gene mutation or by harsh environments) results in neuropsychological disability. A major locus of plasticity (and hence, cognitive disability) is the dendritic spine.

pyramidal neuron

The dendrites of pyramidal neurons express thousands of dendritic spines. P=pyramidal neuron.

Principal neurons in the brain, such as cortical pyramidal neurons, express tens of thousands of small protruberances on their dendritic trees. These structures (dendritic spines) receive excitatory information from other neurons, and are highly dynamic. They can adjust their responsiveness to glutamate (the major excitatory neurotransmitter), becoming stronger (potentiation) or weaker (depression), as local circumstances dictate. This strengthening (LTP) or weakening (LTD) can be transient, or persist over long periods and as such, serves as an ideal substrate for learning and memory at synapses and in circuits. Potentiated spines increase in size, and express more AMPA glutamate receptors, whilst the opposite pattern occurs in synaptic depression to the extent that spines can be 'absorbed' back into the dendritic tree.

Over the course of childhood, dendritic spines (excitatory synapses) increase in number, but their numbers are 'pruned' back during adolescence to reach a plateau. Enriched environments have been shown to increase spine density, impoverished environments the opposite. In common psychiatric disorders, spine density is altered. For example, the most robust histological finding in schizophrenia is a reduction of spine density in the frontal cortex, auditory cortex and the hippocampus. In major depression, spines (and dendrites) are lost in the hippocampus. In autism, spine density actually increases. Finally, in Alzheimer's and other dementias there is a catastrophic, and progressive loss of cortical and sub-cortical spines.

Regulation of the spine:

The molecular biology of dendritic spines involves hundreds of proteins, but the outlines are now reasonably well understood. Scaffolding proteins [such as PSD95, shank(s), AKAP, stargazin and homer(s)] provide structural support and provide orientatation for membrane bound receptors, ion-channels and their downstream signalling pathways. The scaffold (post-synaptic density), facilitates effective signalling by ensuring that the correct protein partners are in close apposition. The scaffold is also tethered to proteins which bridge the synaptic cleft (cell adhesion molecules) and to bundles of actin filaments which provide the structure and force for spine enlargement (and retraction).

dendritic spine

Spine plasticity is fundamental for learning and memory. The shuttling of AMPA receptors underlies early phase plasticity. Modification of the actin cytoskeleton and local protein synthesis underlie long term plastic changes.

There is a constant remodelling of the actin cytoskeleton within the spine in response to synaptic and network signalling. Remodelling is via small, cytoplasmic G-proteins from the RHO family. Some family members promote the growth and stabilisation of actin filaments, whereas others promote actin disassembly. Mutations in the proteins which regulate actin dynamics are a cause of learning disability. Finally local protein synthesis (and degradation) occurs within dendritic spines, is tightly controlled and is essential for plasticity. Abnormalities in local protein synthesis within the spine underlie learning disability syndromes such as fragile X, neurofibromatosis and tuberous sclerosis.

Spine pathology:

Recent years have seen glutamate synapses move to centre stage in neuropsychiatry. This is not surprising given the role of pyramidal neurons (glutamate containing neurons) in information processing, and the role of glutamate transmission in learning and memory [see link]. But it is remarkable that so many psychological and cognitive disorders appear to 'coalesce' at dendritic spines.

The enclosed vector-graphic image [click here] highlights a selection of some of the proteins which are now known to be involved in autism, learning disability and schizoprenia.

Research will continue to decipher the complexity (and beauty) of the dendritic spine, but potential treatments are starting to emerge for disorders like fragile X, (which until recently were thought to be not amenable for drug treatment, as was the case for schizophrenia until the 1950s). Molecular neuroscientists will, almost certainly, continue to uncover more treatment targets. The task for psychiatry, as ever, is to keep abreast of neuroscience in all it's complexity (and beauty).


BD or not BD?

The Bipolar Spectrum: can brain scans resolve diagnostic uncertainty?

The concept of manic-depression was extended some years back to cover less extreme manifestations characterised by hypomania (Bipolar II), as well as the classical form, defined by mania (Bipolar I). But other forms (perhaps less dramatic, though still a cause of much suffering) also exist.

These ‘softer’ forms of bipolar illness appear to blur into unipolar depression and perhaps also with the category which has been termed, borderline personality disorder. Although there has been a trend to view psychiatric disorders as points on a spectrum, rather than as discrete, encapsulated diagnoses, many psychiatrists would hesitate to equate borderline personality disorder and bipolar illness. Ultimately the matter will be resolved when we fully grasp the underlying neurobiology of affective disorders.

A new paper from researchers based in Sydney provides an authoritative and balanced account of the current state of our knowledge. The authors elegantly summarise the functional MRI literature across the hypothesised spectrum. One feature appears to be common across the various disorders – limbic hyperactivity. Perhaps this is not so surprising as the limbic system is the ‘seat’ of emotion, and all the various disorders/forms are characterised by emotional upset.

But there also appear to be differences. For example, the orbitofrontal cortex (a higher centre, which ‘dampens’ and regulates emotion) appears to be underactive in bipolar I, but not in unipolar depression nor in borderline personality disorder.

Further work will be needed before clear-cut conclusions can be drawn. The authors conclude…”Eventually, as the respective signatures of personality-based emotional dysregulation and bipolar mood dysregulation become increasingly crisp, we may be able to use functional neural profile to assist in clarifying diagnosis or treatment options in clinically muddy presentations, although a great deal of work will need to be done before imaging will be sufficiently robust to be used in this manner.”

The full paper can be read here: