Neuroscience Retreat Fosters Team Science Synergy

The UI Center on Depression and Resilience (UI CDR) participated in the first of its kind neuroscience retreat at the College of Medicine Research Building (COMRB). The event was organized by anatomy and cell biology, neurology, and psychiatry drawing more than two dozen faculty researchers to share their work, exchange ideas, and explore potential collaborations.

“We have a lot of strengths in neuroscience across campus in ophthalmology, bioengineering, physiology, radiology, psychology, and so forth. This is an opportunity to get investigators together who would never otherwise run into each other,” explains
Dr. Anand Kumar, Head of the Psychiatry Department and the UICDR, who helped organize the event.

The format of the all-day retreat was divided into two parts with separate objectives. The first involved short five minute presentations updating on research in various areas across campus. These 25 mini-presentations aimed at introducing researchers to the diverse breadth of work being done on campus. Everything from proteins, pathways, and patient care to molecular, cellular, and genetic research were explored. The primary intent of this half was to expose researchers to different labs and areas of work across campus.

The second portion was a collaboration exercise. Participants were split into random subgroups of 5-7 researchers required to develop a project together based on their diverse areas of expertise. The intent here was to create the conditions for synergistic opportunities and cross collaboration.

Creating Synergy Across Campus

“I think it was a success,” says Dr. K. Luan Phan, Director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Program, Associate Head for Clinical and Translational Research, and Chief of Neuropsychiatric Research at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, who presented in the morning session.

Speaking for the whole day, Dr. Phan felt the retreat went a long way to familiarize participants to what is going on with other labs and ultimately to shift the culture toward more collaborative research.

“Inertia is really not to collaborate, because it is so hard and there are so many obstacles, but I think this retreat disrupted that.” He explained. “Neuroscience is spread across campus, across college. It is in our nature as researchers to focus on our area of interest. We are trained to go deep on a problem—to drill down. But, we need to look laterally as well.”

A Team Science Approach

UICDR was established with this kind of constructive disruption in mind. As a center, it provides a multidisciplinary collaborative approach modeled after the National Cancer Institute, which achieved remarkable advances in identifying and treating the cancer by placing focus on the disease, rather than the method of treatment or study. UICDR is predicated on a multifaceted approach that considers epigenetics, neuroscience, blood biomarkers, systemic issues, and other methods together—a team science approach—as the only way of understanding, treating, and beating depression.

Phan presented research from the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Program that morning on treatments, strategies, and interventions for dysregulation of nodes in the amygdala-frontal brain network that underlies human emotion and motivation. As part of the UICDR leadership, he has been actively looking to collaborate with two other neuroscience laboratories involved in UICDR—the Chicago Laboratory of Emotion and Physiology and the Cognitive Neuroscience Center—which could create new understanding of the relationship between depression and anxiety disorders.


In collaboration with Dr. Stewart Shankman, who runs the Chicago Laboratory of Emotion and Physiology through the psychology department and Dr. Scott Langenecker, Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Center, Phan is interested in where their areas of investigation overlap.

“Evidence seems to show that general anxiety, dysthymia, major depression, social anxiety, panic disorders have more in common with one another—they are more similar—than they are different.” Phan elaborates. “By looking at the shared biology of these disorders we can not only gain a better understanding of them, but also, practically speaking, a better understanding of how we can intervene on them.”

The Chicago Laboratory of Emotion and Physiology (dubbed the “Uncertainty Lab”) uses a multi-method approach to understand the nature of depression and explore the relationship between mood and anxiety disorders combining clinical and epidemiological approaches with neuroscience and psychophysiological methods. The Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Program integrates affective, cognitive, and social neuroscience perspectives primarily using magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI, DTI, sMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) of event-related potentials (ERP) looks at brain circuit function as they relate to emotion, affect regulation, motivation and decision-making. While, the Cognitive Neuroscience Center, has expertise in translational neuroscience drawing on the disciplines of physics, engineering, computer science, statistics, psychology, neuroanatomy, pathology, endocrinology to understand the neurobiology of depression and more effectively treat mood disorders.

If this collaboration gains traction and secures grant funding, they could begin not only to compare data, but also strategically share research subjects between each of the three labs. Currently, all three labs inadvertently compete with one another for research subjects, but creating a common core where the same patient can participate in research for all three labs. This would wide variety of data collected from a diverse array of neuroimaging tools—fMRI, EEG—considered through different lenses—neuropsychiatry, clinical psychology, neuropsychology—possibly yielding new insights into anxiety and depression.

“We can look for consistency across all these diseases. Is there a common construct to depression, worry, panic? Can we do something about these patterns? By combining our multiple skillsets and approaches to consider these questions, we can get results that we may not be able to reach independently.” Phan elaborates.

By encouraging collaborations among these diverse methods—not just neuroimaging, but also blood, saliva, deep phenotyping, genomic/ genetic studies, genetic signals—and pooling collected data UICDR hopes for a more nuanced perspective of depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.

Catalyzing a culture of collaborators

“The goal of the retreat was really to catalyze collaborations. In principle it achieved that just by getting these groups together. The challenge will be how we build on that initial group from here,” Phan states.

Optimistically, he sees possibilities beyond an annual retreat. “The future of neuroscience is that we should all be in the same group. We should be able to fuse neuroimaging, neuropathology, clinical approaches, and so on to focus on issues together.”

The Neuroscience Retreat and the collaborative spirit of the UICDR are the first steps to shifting the culture from siloed researchers single mindedly focusing on a solution to a community of problem solvers approaching multiple strategies to making change.  

K. Luan Phan

K. Luan Phan MD

Dr. K. Luan Phan is the UI CDR Endowed Professor, Director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Program (MADRP) and Associate Head for Clinical and Translational Research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  He is also Chief of NeuroPsychiatric Res ...