Bioengineering Enhances Psychiatric Research

Howard Aizenstein, MD, PhD (Charles F. Reynolds III and Ellen G. Detlefsen Endowed Chair in Geriatric Psychiatry and Professor of Bioengineering and Clinical and Translational Science), is trained as a geriatric psychiatrist and as a computer scientist, and he is recognized for his expertise in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) analysis methods and their use in clinical research in aging. In collaboration with Tamer Ibrahim, PhD (Professor of Engineering), Dr. Aizenstein co-directs the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) T32 Bioengineering in Psychiatry Predoctoral Training Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

We spoke with Dr. Aizenstein to learn more about the collaboration between Psychiatry and Bioengineering.

The T32 Bioengineering in Psychiatry Predoctoral Training Program
The T32 Bioengineering in Psychiatry Predoctoral Training Program is the first research training program for bioengineering students interested in psychiatry. Its goal is to provide bioengineering PhD students with a solid foundation in quantitative and computational science, as well as in the models and constructs of mental health research, as the need for quantitative and computational science in psychiatric research increases. The trainees in the program will be uniquely qualified to help lead the development of new technical bioengineering approaches to address mental health research challenges. The program supports the NIMH’s initiative to develop computational approaches that may provide novel ways to understand relationships among datasets and further the understanding of the underlying pathophysiology of diseases.

Multiple Psychiatry faculty members apply advanced methodological techniques to their research. For example, Minjie Wu, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry), and Helmet Karim, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Bioengineering), both earned their doctorate degrees in Bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Wu's research is focused on developing advanced functional and structural MRI techniques and using them to characterize changes associated with brain development as well as aging, neurodegenerative, and neuropsychiatric disorders. While obtaining her PhD in Bioengineering, she developed MRI algorithms that led to more accurate brain image segmentation and normalization. Dr. Karim’s research focuses on the predictive role of the acute neural changes associated with treatment response in major depressive disorder (MDD), and he is principal investigator of an NIMH-funded K01 career development award focused on developing machine learning models for identifying neural predictors of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) treatment response in MDD. 

How Bioengineering Enhances Psychiatric Research
The Bioengineering in Psychiatry Training Program’s research efforts are divided into three spheres: neuroimaging, neurostimulation, and neuroengineering. “Many modern psychiatric research methods and clinical practices around mood, anxiety, and psychotic disorders—as well as suicide and cognitive impairment—use bioengineering principles and methods. For instance, brain imaging research, which is conducted by many members of our Department, relies on integrating computational and signal processing methods to characterize the role of the brain in mental health,” said Dr. Aizenstein.  

Bioengineering techniques enhance research in a variety of spheres within the Department of Psychiatry. Sarah Pedersen, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry), leads a study to develop an implicit test of awareness of privilege (e.g., recognition of advantage not available to everyone) and how awareness of privilege (or lack thereof) relates to attitudes, behaviors, and identities in study participants. “The development of this computer game has involved undergraduate students, staff, and faculty from both Psychiatry and Bioengineering,” said Dr. Pedersen. “Collaborations with Bioengineering have enhanced the reliability of the game and the novelty of the questions posed, and increases the likely impact of this work.”

An Opportunity for Mentorship
The Bioengineering in Psychiatry Training Program offers excellent interdisciplinary mentorship opportunities. Predoctoral trainees in this program benefit from a dual mentorship with advisors from both the Swanson School of Engineering and the Department of Psychiatry. “What is most exciting about this training program is that it helps build collaborations and a community of investigators that is both productive, and a lot of fun,” said Dr. Aizenstein.