Centre for Neuroimaging and Cognitive Genomics (NICOG)

 

Aims and Current Activities

The Center for Neuroimaging and Cognitive Genomics was established to build on the synergistic activities of researchers from neuroimaging, cognitive neuroscience and psychiatric genetics. An immediate focus of the center is to foster collaborative research activities between researchers and groups working in this field within the university, as well as national and international collaborations. These activities include:

1.         Establish a network of cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, and genetics researchers working in the area of mental health.

2.         Fostering collaborative research studies (e.g. via shared supervision of postgraduate students) and greater sharing of facilities and resources (e.g. existing data, analysis tools and software, server space).

3.         Sharing and maximising educational and training opportunities across groups (e.g. seminar activities, laboratory meetings, invited speakers). In doing so, this center will seek to solidify and enhance these activities that currently occur informally between the groups.

4.         Promote opportunities for joint research grant funding applications between colleagues (e.g. national applications such as HRB and SFI; international opportunities such as Wellcome trust and Horizon 2020).

5.         Further develop a research infrastructure that will facilitate research excellence in neuroimaging and cognitive genomics, attract top quality researchers to NUIG Galway to work in this area, and highlight NUI Galway as the leading center nationally for research activity in these interdisciplinary fields.

NICOG’s current research activity

NUI Galway is home to a number of internationally recognised researchers and groups active in the fields of neuroimaging, cognitive neuroscience, and psychiatric genetics. This has resulted in a strong history of collaborative research funding (e.g. As funded by the Health Research Board and Irish Research Council) and research publications. This success has been based in part on the creation of large imaging and genetic datasets (e.g. as funded by the IRC, HRB and Wellcome Trust), positioning members of the center to participate in large international consortia (e.g. Enhancing Neuroimaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis – ENIGMA and PSYSCAN - Translating neuroimaging findings from research into clinical practice). 

The two main research groups that currently constitute NICOG are:

The Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory founded by Prof. Colm McDonald and Dr. Dara Cannon in 2006 (www.clinicalneuroimaginglaboratory.com). The lab has completed several projects both with locally acquired neuroimaging data from University College Hospital Galway, and through several collaborations with academic departments including the Institute of Psychiatry, London, the University of Cambridge, the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Dublin and the National Institutes of Health in the USA. The laboratory's main research themes have focussed on:

•          Mapping of brain abnormalities associated with psychotic and affective disorders.

•          The relationship of such brain abnormalities to genetic and environmental risk factors, cognition, course and treatment of illness.

•          The association of structural and functional brain abnormalities with genotypic variation.

•          The application of novel neuroimaging analysis methodologies, including diffusion tensor imaging tractography and netwrok based analysis, to probing brain structural connectivity in patients with psychotic illness.

The Cognitive Genetics and cognitive therapy group is co-led by Prof Donohoe and Dr. Morris (CogGene). Originally established in 2009, the focus on the group, which currently consists of 12 researchers, is on characterising the effects of genetic risk variants for schizophrenia and related neuropsychiatric disorders. To do this the group employs neuropsychological, electrophysiological, and neuro-imaging techniques for investigating the role of gene function at the level of individual brain systems. As part of this work the group is also actively involved in developing psychological therapies for major mental health disorders, including therapies that address cognitive deficits in schizophrenia. Currently, the group is focused on:

•          Understanding the contribution of genetic risk to social disability by measuring the effects of these variants on cortical and behavioural measures of social cognition.

•          Investigating neural connectivity within the brain in terms of (1) structural connectivity: integrity of white matter tracts connecting different parts of the brain; (2) Functional connectivity: the correlation of activity between different parts of the brain; and (3) Effective connectivity: establishing the effect of one group of neurons on another.

•          Establishing whether and how cognitive deficits associated with major psychiatric disorder can be ameliorated by behavioural interventions known as cognitive remediation therapy.

 

NICOG members

Principal Investigators

Prof. Gary Donohoe, Professor of Psychology & Director of NICOG

Gary Donohoe was appointed to the school of psychology as professor of psychology in July 2013. Following the completion of his Doctoral training in Clinical Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Gary undertook a research fellowship in the TCD neuropsychiatric genetics research, where he earned a PhD in Cognitive Genomics and began the cognitive genomics lab. He was appointed an assistant professor in TCD’s school of medicine in 2006, and associate professor in 2009, where he was responsible for the school of medicine psychology program until 2013. Gary’s research focuses on understanding the genetic and neural basis of cognitive deficits associated with psychosis, and the development of therapeutic programs for overcoming these deficits. Gary continues to lead the Cognitive Genetics and Cognitive Therapy (CogGene) group, members of which are based between the school of psychology NUIG and TCD, where he holds the position of adjunct Professor in the school of medicine and principal investigator in the Trinity College Institute for Neuroscience. Gary also continues to be clinically active in mental health service delivery.

Prof. Colm McDonald - Professor of Psychiatry & Co-Director of NICOG

Colm McDonald is Professor of Psychiatry at National University of Ireland, Galway and Consultant Psychiatrist, West Galway Mental Health Services. He also holds the post of visiting Professor at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London. He completed his basic clinical training in Dublin and then moved to the Institute of Psychiatry in London, where he completed his clinical and research training and received his PhD.

He took up his professorial post in 2005 and has developed a clinical research program which focuses on investigating neurobiological and neuroimaging abnormalities associated with major psychotic and affective disorders. He is Director of the Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory at NUI Galway. His research projects have been supported by the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, Health Research Board, Royal Society, National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, Mental Health Commission. He has authored over 100 original articles published in peer reviewed journals. 

Dr. Derek Morris - Lecturer in Biochemistry

Derek Morris graduated with a B.Sc. in Biotechnology from the National University of Ireland, Galway in 1998. In 2001, he completed his PhD in molecular genetics at the Department of Psychological Medicine, Cardiff University. He subsequently joined the Neuropsychiatric Genetics Research Group in TCD as a research fellow and was awarded a HRB Postdoctoral Career Development Research Fellowship in 2003. In 2006, Dr. Morris was appointed Lecturer in Molecular Psychiatry within the Dept. of Psychiatry in TCD and in 2013 moved to NUI Galway where he is now Lecturer in Biomedical Science.

Dr. Morris’ research interests are the development of novel methods for mapping genes for complex diseases and the application of high-throughput genomics technologies to the detection of risk genes for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He has extensive experience of genome-wide association studies and using SFI funding, set up TrinSeq, the first next-generation sequencing lab in Ireland in 2008. He is currently President of the Irish Society of Human Genetics. His contribution to the Cognitive Genetics Group is study design and the management of biosample resources and genetics data used for ongoing studies.

Dr. Dara M. Cannon – Lecturer in Anatomy

Dr. Dara M. Cannon is a lecturer in anatomy and research scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway, Co-Director of the Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory, Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed academic journal 'Translational Neuroscience' and an organizing member of the 'Irish Diffusion Imaging Group'. Dr. Cannon's primary goal is to aid in improving our understanding of the biological underpinnings of mood and anxiety disorders by applying in vivo neuroimaging techniques to understand the human brain in particular during depression and anxiety.

Dr. Cannon's experience involves the neuroimaging modalities of positron emission tomography (PET) including mathematical modeling of PET data, and structural and diffusion-weighted (DTI) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The application of these technologies is being used to study receptor mapping in the human brain, bipolar disorder, the menstrual cycle, post-partum depression, temporal lobe epilepsy, brain-derived neurotropic factor as well as neurophysiological, clinical, cognitive, genetic and neuroanatomical contributions to mood disorders and psychosis. Validation of imaging findings is pursued using post-mortem microscopic contributions to the diffusion-weighted signal.

Dr. Brian Hallahan - Lecturer in Psychiatry

Dr. Brian Hallahan is a senior lecturer in psychiatry at National University of Ireland, Galway and Consultant Psychiatrist, West Galway Mental Health Services. He completed his basic clinical training in Galway and then moved to Dublin. He engaged in research in Beaumont Hospital, which resulted in him attaining his MD degree. He subsequently worked in the Institute of Psychiatry in London focusing on neuroimaging research in Autism Spectrum Disorders and returned to Ireland to complete his higher training. Dr. Brian Hallahan worked as a consultant psychiatrist in the Roscommon Mental Health Services before commencing his present post in 2012.

Dr. Hallahan clinical research interests include structural neuroimaging of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorders. He has over 50 publications in peer reviewed journals and the Genio Trust and Stanley Treatment Trials have supported his research projects. 

Research Scientists

Dr. Niall Colgan – Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Niall is a researcher at NUI Galway. His research is in the area of biomarkers in dementia, psychosis and drug discovery. His specialty area is Magnetic resonance imaging. Prior to joining NUIG Niall was a senior research associate in University college London in Alzheimer’s disease and a lecturer in Medical Imaging at Swansea University and established Swansea Universities interdisciplinary health and research-imaging facilities containing MRI, Ultrasound, HIFU and CT. He has previously worked in Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin in MRI related to Acquired Brain Injury, Neurodegenerative Diseases, Oncology and Cardiovascular Disease. His primary research focus is biomedical physics, particularly diffusion, metabolic and metabolite imaging.

Dr. Pablo Najt – Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Dr. Pablo Najt is a postdoctoral researcher in the Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Department of Psychiatry, National University of Ireland in Galway. Dr. Najt completed a predoctoral fellowship in the University of Texas at San Antonio and in 2012 received his PhD in Psychology from Durham University, England. More recently, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine.

His research efforts have focused on the elucidation of brain mechanisms that underlie the pathophysiology of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and psychopathy by using a wide range of neuroimaging techniques including positron emission tomography, structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy. He has also studied the functional brain organization of cognitive and emotional processes implementing a range of neurocognitive paradigms in mood disorders.

Dr. Jingjing Zhao – Postdoctoral Research Fellow

My education background includes trainings from China, United States, and Europe. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degree from Beijing Normal University in 2004 (major: Science and Technology of Electronic Information, minor: Psychology) and 2007 (Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience), respectively. Then I moved to the U.S. to start my doctoral studies specific in language and cognition in the Department of Psychology at University of Connecticut and Haskins Laboratories and received my PhD in 2012. In the fall of 2012, I moved to Europe in order to gain more research experience on clinical population. My first stop was in France where I completed a 1.5-year postdoctoral training at the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistiques (LSCP) in Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris under the supervision of Professor Franck Ramus, focusing on the neuroanatomy basis of developmental dyslexia.

Currently, I am a postdoctoral research scientist working at the School of Psychology, National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) in Professor Gary Donohoe’s CogGene research group. My research project in Ireland is characterizing the contribution of genes and white matter connectivity to cognitive deficits in schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. My research interests are the development/learning of language and social cognition, its disorders (e.g., dyslexia, autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder) and its determinants at multiple levels of description (e.g., cognitive, neural, genetic, and environmental). I am also quite enthusiastic for research work related to interactions between the development/learning of language and social cognition as well as how gene and environmental factors influence the interactions.

Dr. April Hargreaves – Postdoctoral Research Fellow

April graduated with a B.A (Hons) in psychology from UCD in 1997. In 1998 she completed her Masters in neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Denmark Hill. She recently completed her doctorate in neuropsychology and genetics with the Department of Psychiatry, Trinity College Dublin, where her research focused on the neuropsychological profile of schizophrenia risk variants recently identified in genome wide association studies. Currently April is involved in the running of a cognitive remediation therapy (CRT) programme, assessing the impact of memory training in patients with psychosis. April also works as assistant psychologist in the Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum.

Dr. Omar Mothersill - Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Omar’s research focuses on deficits in social cognition across neuropsychiatric disorders and how these deficits may be examined at the level of the brain, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This research also involves evaluating the effects of specific genetic and environmental risk factors for mental illness on brain activity and functional connectivity during social information processing.

Prior to working as a Post-doctoral Fellow, Omar’s PhD focused on the impact of psychiatric risk variants on brain activity and functional connectivity using fMRI and a range of analysis techniques including seed-based correlation.

Omar previously completed a B.A. (Hons) in Science in 2007 (specialising in Zoology), and M.Sc. in Neuroscience in 2009. After finishing his Master’s, Omar worked as a research assistant in the Trinity Department of Psychiatry, and then on IMAGEN, a Europe-wide imaging genetics project examining brain development during adolescence.

Current Postgraduate Students

Joanne Kenney - PhD student

Joanne Kenney began her PhD in September 2012 in the Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory. Joanne completed her Msc in Neuroscience at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2010. During this time, she also worked as a behavioural research assistant at London Business School. Joanne has experience as an Assistant Psychologist in London, working with individuals with Asperger’s, Schizophrenia, OCD and brain injury. She has also researched memory deficits in older adults using EEG in the Psychology Department at NUIG. Her PhD topic focuses on investigating the progression of brain abnormalities and cognitive changes over time in first episode psychosis.

Stefani O'Donoghue - PhD student

Stefani O’Donoghue began her PhD in September 2012 in the Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory. She completed her BSc in Psychology at Fordham University in New York in 2012. While attending Fordham University, Stefani held an internship with the International Journal of Body Psychotherapy researching Mentalisation and Emotional Regulation. Stefani was also an assistant at Fordham University’s Office of Disability Services working with students with various disabilities including learning disabilities, mobility-related disabilities, psychological and psychiatric disorders. Stefani’s PhD in Psychiatry will focus on dysconnectivity in psychotic illness. Stefani is working on volume and shape analysis of the caudate in Psychosis. She will be working with Dr. Brian Hallahan on an MRI study examining individuals with Multiple Sclerosis and Bipolar Disorder.

Srinath Ambati - PhD student

Srinath Ambati is a Postgraduate researcher pursuing a structured PhD in anatomy under supervision of Dr. Dara Cannon at National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG). Srinath completed his Bachelor of Pharmacy degree from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, India in 2011 and an MSc in Neuropharmacology from NUIG in 2012. Srinath has worked on the shape analysis of hippocampi in Psychosis and is currently investigating the genetic variation in the muscarinic cholinergic M2 receptor gene and cholinergic neurotransmission in Bipolar disorder.

Rachel Dillon - PhD student

Rachel graduated in 2011 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee with a B.A. in Psychology. Her Ph.D, which she started within the Department of Psychiatry in 2012, aims to investigate adherence to computerized cognitive remediation therapy (CRT) for psychosis. Her work focuses on psychological factors that predict treatment non-adherence, including contextual, patient, and illness related factors.

 

Donna Cosgrove - PhD student

Donna has a background in Pharmacy, graduating with a BPharm (Hons) from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 2009. She completed an M.Sc. in Neuropharmacology in 2013 and then started a PhD in the Dept. of Psychology in NUI Galway in 2014. Donna’s PhD project aims to investigate the effect of genetic variants that have been found to contribute to schizophrenia, particularly looking at cognitive differences and neurobiological pathways affected.

 

Jessica Holland - MSc student

Jessica graduated with a BSc. (Hons) in Psychology from the University of Limerick in 2014. Following this, she completed a MSc. in Neuropsychology, awarded by University of Maastricht in 2015. Currently she is completing a research internship as part of her MSc. programme in NUI, Galway, which centers on genetic risk factors for psychosis and brain activity related to social cognition. She hopes to continue her current research with a PhD in NUIG starting in September 2015, which focuses on genetic risk factors for schizophrenia related to immune health.