Joshua A. Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), will talk about efforts to understand and use neural circuits — networks of interconnected neurons that work together to guide behavior — as potential pathways to target therapeutically to treat depression, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 8, at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

A board-certified psychiatrist who leads mental health research for the National Institutes of Health, Gordon will present, “A Neural Circuit Approach to Psychiatric Illness” as part of the VTCRI Eric Shullman Distinguished Public Lecture Series.

Neural circuit technologies have been successfully used to modulate behavior in animals, by turning up and down activity in a specific component of a circuit. Gordon will talk about the two mainstays of neural circuit technology — optogenetics, which uses light to alter neural activity, and pharmacogenetics, which uses designer drugs.

“It might seem like science fiction, to imagine harnessing neural circuit technologies to reverse disease-related dysfunction deep within the living, thinking human brain,” Gordon said. “But more and more we can envision these methods as science fact rather than science fiction.”

Gordon will describe a way forward that calls for increased understanding of the neural circuits underlying the symptoms of mental illnesses and for further development of circuit-based technology aimed at applying the techniques to patients.

Gordon completed a combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree program at the University of California, San Francisco, where he developed methods to study brain plasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and change over time. 

During his psychiatry residency and research fellowship, also at the University of California, San Francisco, he studied the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory and the emotional processes associated with anxiety and depression.

Prior to joining the National Institute of Mental Health, Gordon was an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University, where he also served as director of neuroscience education. In addition, he was the associate director of the Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute Adult Psychiatry Residency Program.

In the meantime, Gordon maintained a general psychiatric practice, caring for patients who suffer from the illnesses he studied in his laboratory at Columbia University.

Gordon is the recipient of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation – NARSAD Young Investigator Award, the Rising Star Award from the International Mental Health Research Organization, the A.E. Bennett Research Award from the Society of Biological Psychiatry, and the Daniel H. Efron Research Award from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.