Researcher Explores the Neural Correlates of Mental Illness

August 18, 2022

Key Findings 

  • A variety of neural responses can help us predict prospectively who will develop symptoms of psychopathology such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
  • Stress exposure changes the way the brain processes threats and rewards.

When individuals live through stressful experiences, what makes some of them more susceptible to developing symptoms of mental health disorders than others? This is one question Dr. Anna Weinberg, associate professor of psychology at McGill University, strives to answer with her research.

For her work, Dr. Weinberg was recently awarded the 2022 Early Career Impact Award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, nominated by the Society for Research in Psychopathology. She uses a multidisciplinary approach to understand the influence of genetics and environment on vulnerability to life stressors. Her research often involves the integration of physiological measures, laboratory tasks, neuroimaging, and clinical interviews.

Her interest in the topic grew while doing a post-baccalaureate program at Columbia University. During her time in New York City, she had the opportunity to assist with a collaborative study examining the neural correlates of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people that survived the September 11th attacks. In this study, they looked at the development of post-traumatic symptoms in people that were either in the twin towers or within the vicinity. They aimed to understand neural markers of risk in those that exhibited symptoms of mental illness after the event versus those that were more likely to recover.

Now, Dr. Weinberg is working with adolescents and infants to examine how early in life these neural correlates of risk are present. This would help identify not only people who would benefit from preventative efforts, but also which specific forms of intervention would help those people the most. It is more difficult to intervene once someone is already ill. Dr. Weinberg’s research has the potential to allow clinicians to better predict who will become ill. As she describes, “it’s important to me that this is more than just an intellectual exercise. I want to connect my work to concrete outcomes in patients.”

It’s important to me that this is more than just an intellectual exercise. I want to connect my work to concrete outcomes in patients.

– Anna Weinberg

Photo by from Pexels.

Today, her work is applicable as many people continue to struggle with their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her lab is also working to understand how stress exposure can change the way the brain processes threats and rewards. Preliminary findings indicate that participants living through the stress of the pandemic have significantly blunted neural responses to rewards. This work has important implications for how stress can affect neural responses, and subsequently behavior, in a variety of contexts.

 In addition to her lab work, Dr. Weinberg is actively involved in science communication. She is currently developing free workshops for members of the community to learn stress-reduction techniques. Furthermore, she helped establish a new psychology training clinic at McGill. In addition to its research activity, the training clinic translates and disseminates scientific findings to the public in the forms of blog posts and videos. Details on the clinic and its resources can be found on the McGill website here.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allowed her to kick-start her career as a researcher. Much of her work on the neural markers for mental health disorders began when she was a trainee with funding from a National Research Service Award. Additionally, federal funding allowed her to collaborate with other researchers to investigate relapsing depression in women.

Potential for Future Impact

  • Understanding the neural markers of mental illness will help identify those who would benefit from preventative efforts and what type of intervention would be the most beneficial.

Dr. Anna Weinberg is a recipient of the 2022 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Society for Research in Psychopathology (SRP).

The annual SRP conference takes place in Philadelphia, PA, on September 8-11, 2022. See more about the conference here

You can read more about Dr. Weinberg’s work at the links below: