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View into the brain

(Vienna 13th June 2013) With the use of imaging methods, scientists at the MedUni Vienna and the University of Vienna are looking for changes in the human brain. With the help of Magnetic Resonance Tomography (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) it is possible to identify neurobiological markers for psychiatric illnesses such as depression, Alzheimer's or anxiety disorders. In future this could help to treat these disorders in a more targeted way, better tailored to the individual, and enable risk groups to be identified earlier. 

"For a long time the hope was that researchers would be able to track down the significant causes of psychiatric disorders through genetics," says Rupert Lanzenberger from the University Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the MedUni Vienna. "But now these latest research results demonstrate that molecular and functional imaging of the brain have been able to achieve significant progress in diagnosis and prognosis."


By means of a positron emission tomography and so-called radioligands – substances that have been marked with a radionuclide, which specifically and selectively bond with target proteins – the researchers are able to make quantitative neurochemical changes in different neurotransmitter systems of the living brain visible. Functional magnetic resonance tomography furthermore enables activity patterns of the brain to be measured with high resolution images.

According to Lanzenberer it is due to the close interdisciplinary collaboration between radiodiagnostics, nuclear medicine, medical physics, radiochemistry and psychiatric brain research at the Medical University of Vienna that the most high tech imaging methods can be deployed here in the service of patients.
The aim is to produce objective standard values and biomarkers that can be placed against the subjective descriptions of the patients with psychiatric disorders. According to Lanzenberger, the making visible of neurochemical and functional changes in the brain gives rise to hopes that it will be possible to make prognoses for future therapies. At the same time, it would be possible to assess whether people, whose families already have a history of mental illness, have a higher risk of suffering from one in later life.


Structural changes are taking place in the human brain on a continual basis anyway. Says Lanzenberger: "Microstructural and neurochemical changes take place even after a mundane routine conversation between two people."


Joint research cluster with the University of Vienna
The joint research cluster with the University of Vienna – known by the title "Multimodal Neuroimaging in clinical Neurosciences: Assessment of neurobiological markers for psychiatric disorders" – under the leadership of Lanzenberger (University Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy) and Claus Lamm (Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna) - is still in the research phase, but scientist think that in ten years these modern imaging methods could belong to routine clinical tests in the diagnostics and treatment of psychiatric disorders.


The "Psychiatry / Psychology & Imaging" research cluster is one of six joint clusters of the MedUni Vienna with the University of Vienna set up in 2011. Further info: http://forschungscluster.meduniwien.ac.at/.