Boosting Brain Connectivity

Ji Hyun Ko
Ji Hyun Ko

Researchers from the Max Rady College of Medicine are aiming to increase the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy by combining it with non-invasive brain stimulation.

The project received a grant of $100,000 from The Winnipeg Foundation Innovation Fund, which supports cutting-edge, collaborative research in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

Dr. Ji Hyun Ko, associate professor of human anatomy and cell science, leads the team studying the effects of non-invasive brain stimulation on participants enrolled in UM’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Mindfulness (CBTm) class.

CBTm is a five-week online class used to treat Manitobans with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. The UM-run class covers areas such as mindfulness, goal-setting and realistic thinking.

The current research builds on one of the team’s previous studies, which is currently under review by a leading journal in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. The team is the first in the world to discover that taking the CBTm class increased the connections between two brain regions in participants: the posterior cingulate cortex and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

“Using an MRI, we identified key brain regions that seem to be important in explaining the benefit of cognitive behavioural therapy,” said Ko. “The connections between the two regions were improved after treatment, and it seemed to be important for participants’ symptom reduction.”

The two brain regions play an important role in regulating self-referential memory and mindfulness, Ko said. Now, the researchers believe they can further boost the effects of cognitive behavioural therapy if they increase the connectivity between the two regions using non-invasive brain stimulation, called high definition transcranial direct current stimulation.

While other scientists have tried to combine brain stimulation and cognitive behavioural therapy, Ko’s team is the first to use an MRI to determine brain stimulation targets.

When someone is taking the CBTm class, they are practising mindfulness and working on cognitive skill exercises. Ko said this strengthens the connectivity between the two brain regions, and if the person receives brain stimulation, it could improve the results.

“When you’re training your muscles, an assistive device like a weight can further improve your strength,” Ko said. “We believe this can be done using brain stimulation.”

The study’s team members include co-principal investigators Shay-Lee Bolton [B.Sc.(Hons.)/05, M.Sc./08, PhD/15], assistant professor of psychiatry and community health sciences, and Dr. Marcus Ng, associate professor of internal medicine.

A student demonstrates how research participants will wear a cap to receive brain stimulation.

Jitender Sareen [B.Sc.(Med)/95, MD/95], professor and head of psychiatry, and Natalie Mota [MA/09, PhD/14], associate professor of clinical health psychology, are collaborators on the study.

The project is a pilot study with a sample size of 30 people. Participants will take part in the five-week CBTm class and will undergo brain stimulation each day on the Bannatyne campus.

“If the brain stimulation works, then we’ll have to think about how to make it more accessible, because the stimulation device is pretty expensive,” Ko said. “If successful, the study will provide a novel approach to further enhance the clinical benefit of CBTm.”