Dr. Sophia Frangou, new to UBC, finds consistencies in abnormal brain function across mood, anxiety disorders

Dr. Sophia Frangou, pictured at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in October 2019.

Image credit: Paul Joseph/UBC.

An analysis of more than 9,000 brain scans shows that abnormalities in brain function in mood and anxiety disorders are localized to the same areas of the brain, offering promise for future prevention and treatment.

The research, published today in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, identified brain regions showing either abnormally increased (hyper-activation) or abnormally decreased (hypo-activation) activation in people with mood and anxiety disorders compared with healthy individuals.

Mood and anxiety disorders account for nearly 65 percent of psychosocial disability worldwide and represent a major public health challenge. According to Statistics Canada, one in three (about 9.1 million people) will be affected by a mental illness during their lifetime, and the cost to the Canadian economy is more than $32 billion per year. People with mood and anxiety disorders have two main problems compared to the general population: they experience more intense negative moods, and greater inability to control them. Consequently, negative mood states such as depression and excessive anxiety tend to persist and to influence daily living activities and personal relationships.

“Mapping clinical features to distinct brain mechanisms has been one of the major challenges in psychiatric neuroimaging,” explained Dr. Sophia Frangou, senior author and President’s Excellence Chair in Brain Health at the University of British Columbia. “Our study found that, compared to healthy individuals, people with mood and anxiety disorders showed over-activated brain regions that support the generation of mood states while areas of the brain that are critical for stopping and switching mental states showed hypo-activation.”

“These findings provide a science-based explanation as to why patients seem to be ‘locked in’ to negative mood states. They also corroborate the patients’ experience of being unable to ‘snap out’ of negative thoughts and feelings,” said Dr. Frangou.

The study was conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, USA. Following Dr. Frangou’s relocation to UBC, she and her team will continue analyzing large multisite datasets to trace the evolution of abnormal functional activity during childhood and adolescence aiming to leverage such information to mitigate the risk of mental disorders and enhance resilience.

Dr. Sophia Frangou, UBC President’s Excellence Chair in Brain Health

Dr. Sophia Frangou, an internationally-prominent clinician scientist, has joined UBC as the inaugural UBC President’s Excellence Chair in Brain Health. Dr. Frangou is based at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health where she leads the Translational Neuroimaging and Clinical Neuroscience Program in Mental Health.

The focus of the Program is to:

  • characterize the brain mechanisms that underpin mood and psychotic disorders;
  • identify the bio-signature of genetic and environmental risk factors for mental disorders using population neuroscience;
  • discover brain mechanisms that mitigate the risk for mental disorders and enhance resilience in populations at risk.

The overarching aim is to leverage this knowledge to develop novel prevention and intervention strategies. 

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Sophia Frangou as Professor of Psychiatry and UBC President’s Excellence Chair in Brain Health” said UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa Ono. “Her appointment confirms the commitment of UBC to brain research and complements the work of other distinguished faculty members focused on brain health at the university.”

“My move to UBC offers me the opportunity to work with leading clinician scientists, like Dr. Lakshmi Yatham, and collaborate with an impressive group of internationally recognized neuroscientists. As a clinician-scientist, I value the opportunity to conduct my research in the Canadian healthcare environment, and specifically the opportunity to build on the excellent infrastructure provided by UBC to create centres of excellence in psychiatry offering patient-centered care enhanced by the close interface with research, where discoveries can translate efficiently from bench to bedside,” Dr. Frangou said.

“I am delighted to welcome Dr. Sophia Frangou and her research team to the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. Dr. Frangou’s work addresses several areas of key importance to our community, including genetic determinants of psychiatric disease and the role of neuroimaging to understand the basis of mental illness and resiliency,” said Dr. Jon Stoessl. “We look forward to her taking work in these areas to a new level.”

Featured publications

Dr. Frangou has more than 250 publications that have attracted over 17,000 citations (h-index: 72). She has made seminal contributions to the study of the human brain in health and disease and particularly in:

Dr. Frangou is an influential advocate for diversity in academic psychiatry with specific focus on closing the gender gap in publishing, funding and leadership. She is the editor and author of Women in Academic Psychiatry: A Mind to Succeed.

Background

Dr. Frangou is a British psychiatrist who trained at Maudsley and Bethlem Royal Hospitals in London, UK and obtained her Master’s Degree and PhD from the University of London. She served as Professor of Psychiatry at the Department of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York till 2013, having previously held the post of Reader in Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, UK. She is editor-in-chief of European Psychiatry, the journal of the European Psychiatric Association, and associate editor of Human Brain Mapping and BJPsych Open. Dr. Frangou has received numerous awards including the 2019 Colvin Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Mood Disorders Research from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.

The UBC President’s Excellence Chairs were created in order to recruit preeminent academic leaders at the forefront of their respective fields. Read more at academic.ubc.ca/about-presidents-excellence-chairs-program.