The Gillan Lab at Trinity College Dublin will come into existence in January 2017 as part of the new Global Brain Health Institute. The lab uses cognitive neuroscience to better understand, predict and treat mental health problems, tackling issues that are psychiatric, developmental, neurological and associated with advancing age.
We aim to understand mental health problems in terms of their underlying biological mechanisms. While some issues might best understood in terms of clusters or categories, others may reflect dimensions that are observable in the general population. We use cognitive neuroscience to test these opposing possibilities, seeking to empirically validate new and improved mental health phenotypes. The fundamental premise being that any brain health taxonomy should be biologically plausible, that the defining characteristics of a cluster or dimension should relatively homogenous and discrete. We believe that reforming nosology in this way is essential for identifying robust biomarkers, reliable genetic associations and appropriate animal models of mental health problems. See a write-up about our work in this area in scientific american.
A key goal of the Gillan lab is to identify biomarkers of mental health problems that can be used to predict who will get sick in the future. The hope is that by identifying risk factors, we can intervene earlier, prevent progression to disease or at least keep people healthy for longer. One issue that is central to this, is the question of whether a given neural or cognitive measurement represents a state or a trait marker of brain health, where trait markers are stable biological features of mental health problems that (unlike state markers) do not fluctuate as symptoms change over time. We are currently asking this question of a range of key tests of executive function in a large sample of 1000 diagnosed OCD patients whom we are following over time. At TCD, the Gillan Lab aims to take this program further by collecting data further back in time, e.g. before symptoms of Dementia or psychiatric disorders appear.
However good our treatments are, be they pharmacological or behavioural, they can only be as effective as the precision with which we can administer them. A key challenge in treating mental health problems is that treatment response is heterogeneous; we typically do not know which individual will respond to which medicine or behavioural therapy. A key goal of the Gillan Lab is to identify cognitive and neural markers of treatment response using baseline measurements in prospective studies. Ongoing work in this area aims to predict individual responses to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for OCD in collaboration with H. Blair Simpson at Columbia University.