Diego A. Pizzagalli, PhD, is founding director of the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research, director of the McLean Imaging Center, director of the Laboratory for Translational and Affective Neuroscience, and director of research for the Division of Depression and Anxiety Disorders at McLean Hospital, and is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is an internationally known expert on the neurobiology of depression, and has made major contributions toward the identification of biomarkers of depression and treatment response.
The main goals of Dr. Pizzagalli’s research are to improve our understanding of the psychological, environmental, and neurobiological factors associated with mood disorders, in particular major depression. To this end, he integrates behavioral, electrophysiological, neuroimaging, and, more recently, molecular genetics approaches to investigate three important (endo)phenotypes of depression: anhedonia (loss of pleasure), increased stress sensitivity, and executive function deficits.
As director of the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research (CDASR), director of the Laboratory for Translational and Affective Neuroscience (part of the CDASR), and co-director of the McLean Imaging Center, Dr. Pizzagalli is a leading expert in depression and anxiety research.
Depression, anxiety, and related disorders affect one in five Americans over their lifetimes. Recent breakthroughs in genetics, neuroscience, and cognitive science are revolutionizing the understanding of these conditions. The ultimate goal of Dr. Pizzagalli’s research is to identify the biological, environmental, and psychological factors that contribute to depression and anxiety and translate those findings into new treatments.
The scientists in Dr. Pizzagalli’s Laboratory for Translational and Affective Neuroscience focus on the brain mechanisms involved in anhedonia (a core symptom of depression); functional, structural, and neurochemical brain abnormalities in depression; neurobiological predictors of treatment response in depression; and neurobiological predictors of depression onset and relapse.
Anhedonia—the loss of pleasure or lack of reactivity to reward—is one of the core symptoms of and a potential vulnerability marker for depression. Surprisingly, few studies have utilized laboratory-based measures to objectively characterize anhedonia. The goal of this research is to employ a variety of techniques, including electroencephalography (EEG), event-related potentials, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), molecular genetics, as well as stress and pharmacological manipulations, to advance the understanding of anhedonia.
One of the lab’s goals is to improve the understanding of functional, structural, and neurochemical brain abnormalities in depression. This information will be critical for developing better treatments and for identifying individuals at increased risk for depression. Dr. Pizzagalli’s research has shown that specific patterns of brain activation correspond to individual differences in treatment response and particular phenotypes of depression.
Dr. Pizzagalli and his staff are interested in investigating executive dysfunction in depression, especially abnormal reactions to errors and negative feedback. Depressed individuals show a catastrophic response to errors, evident in a rapid downward spiral in performance. Studies from Dr. Pizzagalli’s laboratory were among the first to show that these impairments are linked to an exaggerated, automatic neural response to errors, along with weak recruitment of brain regions that implement cognitive control. These dysfunctions might raise vulnerability to subsequent episodes of depression.
In an investigation of predictors of treatment response in depression, Dr. Pizzagalli’s laboratory was the first to show that pretreatment resting EEG activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex predicted therapeutic improvement 4-6 months later in depressed individuals. The group is currently exploring novel behavioral and EEG markers that could be used to examine treatment response prospectively, ultimately leading to improvements in treatment selection and reducing the personal and socioeconomic burden associated with the current trial and error approach.
Dr. Pizzagalli has published over 170 papers and chapters and serves on the editorial board of 10 journals. Among several awards, he received the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychophysiology from the Society for Psychophysiological Research (2006), the Early Career Award from the EEG and Clinical Neuroscience Society (2007), the Anne M. Cataldo Excellence in Mentoring Award from McLean Hospital (2015), a MERIT award from the National Institute of Mental Health (2016), the Stuart T. Hauser, MD, PhD, Mentorship Award in Psychiatry from Harvard Medical School (2017), the Joel Elkes Research Award from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (2017), and a NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Award (2018).
Pizzagalli DA. Depression, stress, and anhedonia: toward a synthesis and integrated model. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2014;10:393-423.
Treadway MT, Waskom ML, Dillon DG, Holmes AJ, Park MTM, Chakravarty MM, Dutra SJ, Polli FE, Iosifescu DV, Fava M, Gabrieli JDE, Pizzagalli DA. Illness progression, recent stress and morphometry of hippocampal subfields and medial prefrontal cortex in major depression. Biological Psychiatry 2015;77(3):285-94.
Pizzagalli DA, Webb CA, Dillon DG, Tenke CE, Kayser J, Goer F, Fava M, McGrath P, Weissman M, Parsey R, Adams P, Trombello J, Cooper C, Deldin P, Oquendo MA, McInnis MG, Carmody T, Bruder G, Trivedi MH. Pretreatment rostral anterior cingulate cortex theta activity in relation to symptom improvement in depression: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry 2018;75(6):547-554.
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