Awardee Spotlight: Amin Zand Vakili, MD, PhD

Amin Zand Vakili, MD, PhD, received a VA Clinical Science Research & Development Career Development Award-2.

Congratulations to Amin Zand Vakili, MD, PhD, of the VA RR&D Center for Neurorestoration and Neurotechnology, who was recently awarded a VA Clinical Science Research & Development Career Development Award-2 for his research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dr. Zand Vakili is an Advance-CTR 2018 Mentored Research Award Scholar.

"Developing Computational Nosologies of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)" (CS R&D CDA-2) 

The Study

PTSD remains an illness that is hard to diagnose. This is because PTSD neurobiology is not fully known, and also the illness presentation is very heterogeneous; no two patients with PTSD have the same set of symptoms. We take a new approach by looking at brain imaging (functional MRI) and linking individual PTSD symptoms to specific brain networks.

Our goal is to link individual PTSD symptoms to brain networks and to find neurobiological circuitry behind PSTD symptoms and in the future, develop targeted and individualized treatments for veterans with PTSD.

To do this, we will recruit veterans with PTSD from various mental health outpatient clinics at the Providence VA. The principal investigator or the study staff will meet with the veterans individually to conduct an interview, screen for eligibility, and describe the study purpose and procedure. We will collect clinical data, some using self-assessment forms and some by clinical interview. Veterans then would also be scheduled for a 60-minute MRI brain imaging during a second visit. We then feed the clinical data and brain images from MRI into our computer algorithm, whose job is to learn the relationship between MRI images and PTSD severity.

The results from this study would make the diagnosis of PTSD more accurate and would teach us about how PTSD changes the brain in individuals. The hope is that such an approach would help us learn more about PTSD and design new, more effective, and individualized treatments.

“ The use of technology has the ability to expand care, make it more accessible, and increase the bandwidth of the healthcare system. ”

From Advance-CTR to Career Development Award

My main interest is to apply data-science tools and predictive analytics to better understand the neurobiology of mental ailments, to develop new and individualize treatments, and to predict the outcome of such treatments. Both of my VA CDA and Advance CTR awards are in pursuit of this goal, and I use the same tools to reach that goal.

The Advance-CTR award supported me during a crucial time; I was just out of residency and was working on developing my own research program. It provided me with time and much-needed mentorship and structure to conduct my first research project as a faculty and transition into another grant that will now support me for the next five years.  I will be forever thankful and honored for the award.

Addressing RI Health Priorities

There is a great disparity in access to mental health. The need for treatments for mental health conditions (depression, PTSD, substance use disorder, etc.) far exceeds the capacity of the healthcare system (both nationally and at the state level), and this introduces disparity, patients with financial means, those with access to transportation, and those with jobs that allow them with the flexibility to see providers have significantly better access to care.

The use of technology has the ability to expand care, make it more accessible, and increase the bandwidth of the healthcare system. If we can develop better diagnostic tools and individualized treatments, patients would need less frequent visits and fewer treatment trials. 

My long-term goal is to develop a better neurobiological understanding of mental ailments and develop treatments that target such neurobiological deficits.

More Awardees in Action

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