BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Faculty Profile: Dr. Andrew Nicholson, PhD

AUTHOR: Nicolette Rigg

“Dr. Nicholson’s research program is characterized by brain imaging studies in the field of psychiatric medicine, utilizing a wide range of technical methods including real-time fMRI, and most recently, the application of machine learning algorithms to predict psychiatric illness. Dr. Nicholson’s research focuses on examining differential biomarkers of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using neuroimaging methods, as well as examining transdiagnostic biomarkers of other psychiatric disorders. Additionally, Nicholson’s research network is heavily involved in developing novel brain computer interfaces to be used as adjunctive treatments for patients with PTSD such that individuals can voluntarily learn to regulate brain states associated with symptoms. Indeed, Nicholson's group is currently examining randomized clinical trials of neurofeedback in PTSD.”

How did you become interested in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research?

At the beginning of my career, I was really interested in how chronic stress and traumatic experiences affect the brain. Through my work with Dr. Ruth Lanius, I connected with an international network that has very progressive views on PTSD in terms of how we can better understand it and develop our understanding of different subtypes of illness in order to improve treatment outcomes. This research was very much fused with clinical work, with a focus on treatment and improving outcomes for patients. I think that's what made the research so exciting was that it had very practical implications. A large part of why I stuck with this line of research was the influence of the mentors I had, like Ruth Lanius, and the international network of trauma researchers that I met when I started working with her group. The work they were doing was looking at aspects of PTSD that not many people have studied, which is quite innovative.

Can you tell me about your graduate career and your decision to go overseas to Austria?

My PhD work at Western University was centered around characterizing the neural circuits of PTSD using brain imaging and developing novel treatment interventions with real-time fMRI neurofeedback. With respect to neurofeedback, participants could see their brain activity while in the fMRI scanner and attempt to regulate their emotional and psychological states while reliving their traumatic experiences. We found promising evidence of decreased symptoms with just one treatment. From there, I did a postdoctoral fellowship at McMaster and the Homewood Research Institute, where I used machine learning to improve the diagnosis of PTSD in patients. Towards the end of my postdoctoral fellowship at McMaster, I saw a posting for another postdoctoral position in Vienna, Austria, with Dr. Frank Scharnowski. He developed open-source software that allows you to regulate brain connectivity instead of just activation using fMRI neurofeedback. I went to Vienna to learn this specialized knowledge in order to develop cutting edge imaging techniques to use for the treatment of PTSD. Since starting at McMaster, I have formed a multisite collaboration between Ruth Lanius (Western University), Margaret McKinnon (McMaster University), and Frank Scharnowski (University of Vienna) that investigates further the use of connectivity-based fMRI neurofeedback as a treatment for PTSD.

What research are you currently working on?

We are setting up a connectivity-based neurofeedback experiment with real-time fMRI in order to regulate PTSD neural circuitry. We are also conducting a clinical trial between McMaster University, the Homewood Research Institute, and Western University, examining the effectiveness of goal management training, in combination with neurofeedback, on treatment outcomes for PTSD. This neurofeedback trial utilizes a portable form of electroencephalogram (EEG) neurofeedback, allowing these patients to use this treatment in their homes. This trial will be in an online format, which is of critical importance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and increases the accessibility to this treatment. This is particularly relevant in Canada, where access to care can be an issue, especially in rural populations. Another major project my lab is working on involves investigating the neural correlates of minority stress and how this neural circuit parallels that of PTSD neural circuits. We will be looking at the neural basis of how systemic oppression and discrimination affect the brain. 

What advice would you give somebody starting in grad school? 

As simple as it sounds, learning to prioritize is key for success in general but especially when starting out in graduate school. It can be easy to get caught up with meetings and course work or filling other requirements for your degree, but it's important to remind yourself of the big picture and what you're trying to accomplish in terms of your long-term research goals. I think finding people you work well with and enjoy collaborating with makes a huge difference as well. 

What is the new course you are teaching?

The course is called NEUROSCI722, Current Topics in Neuroimaging: Stress, Traumatic Experience and the Brain. It introduces the biophysics of neuroimaging and how to pre-process and analyze fMRI data. We also cover different neuroimaging techniques and analyses. The goal is to teach students how to use these techniques, as well as they might be applied to clinical populations and their own research. This course has a large focus on the fundamentals and clinical applications of neuroimaging. The second half of the course involves presentations aimed at developing scientific dissemination skills.

What do you do to stay sane, especially when you have so much going on?

For me, I like to exercise and meditate. Especially when sitting at a computer all day or being stressed out and super busy, exercising or meditating allows me to think more clearly. In academics, it can be hard to turn your brain off at night, and physical activity really helps with that. 

Writers Note:

As students, especially new students, it can be intimidating to introduce yourself to and speak with professors you respect and look up to. One read of Dr. Nicholson's CV is enough to impress almost anyone, but his approachability was commendable. Speaking with Dr. Nicholson was inspirational. His passion and how he talked about his research and the class he's teaching was contagious. Early in the interview, he spoke of the importance of good mentors, and from how positively he talked about his mentors and his passion in general, I got the feeling that he will be a great mentor as well.

For graduate students interested in research, Dr. Nicholson encourages you to contact him. 

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