What is the brain? How does it function? What is the ‘self’? How do our physical brains and psychological consciousness interact?
While research has helped to unlock some of the mysteries of mental illness, significant knowledge gaps still exist – particularly when it comes understanding the relationship between the brain and the mind in the development of mental illness.
For instance, how are life experiences like trauma and our environments capable of shaping our brain activities – and subsequently, its mental features?
The nature of the link between the brain and the self is still an enigma – but advanced neuroimaging techniques are helping researchers to better understand the mind-brain relation, in order to objectively reveal the causes of mental illness and inform new treatments.
“Despite major advances in current brain research and neuroscience, we still do not know what exactly the brain does and why it can generate mental states like consciousness. When patients are struggling with a mental illness like depression, they often say that they feel ‘locked out of the world’. We need to understand how the brain constructs its relationship to the world, and how that affects a person’s mind. Once we can bridge that gap, then we can better understand what treatment or therapy to offer patients to help ‘unlock’ the world for them again.”
- Dr. Georg Northoff
The IMHR’s Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics Research Unit conducts work that helps to expand our understanding of mental illness, through an exploration of the relationship between the brain and mind in its various facets.
Using neuroimaging techniques with healthy and psychiatric subjects, researchers in this unit search for brain mechanisms that underlie emotions and our sense of self, and seek to understand how the physical brain assumes a mind.
Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at The Royal’s Brain Imaging Centre, researchers have been able to get a better picture of what is happening inside a patient’s brain. Importantly, this has allowed them to study how various treatments affect what is going on, and how different brain networks react when internal thoughts take place, or when the patient interacts with the external world.
Led by philosopher, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Dr. Georg Northoff (Research Director and Canada Research Chair), the unit is driven by the overarching questions: “why and how can our brains construct subjective phenomena like self, consciousness, and emotions?”
Answers to these questions can help to inform the development of advanced and personalized psychiatric diagnostic and therapeutic tools, which can help people suffering from mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia get better, faster.