brainThe research focus of the Simonyan Laboratory is two-fold: identification of the central mechanisms responsible for speech production and elucidation of the pathophysiology of neurological voice and speech disorders. 
 
Our earlier contributions involved identification of the extensive projection system of the laryngeal motor cortex in the rhesus monkey using neuroanatomical tract tracing. Using multimodal neuroimaging, our laboratory later played a central role in i) identification of the laryngeal motocortical representation in humans; ii) defining the functional connectome of speech production, and iii) elucidation of the mechanisms of dopaminergic neurotransmission during speaking, as well as those underlying left-hemispheric lateralization of speech networks. We are currently focused on examining temporal characteristics of laryngeal motocortical activity and the modulatory role of different neurotransmitters on neural networks controlling speech production. To this end, we are developing multi-compartmental neural population models to test specific hypotheses about speech motor control, which have remained extremely challenging to address due to either invasiveness of the applied methods or technical limitations.
 
Our contributions to the understanding of the pathophysiology of neurological speech disorders include a comprehensive mapping of brain functional, structural and dopaminergic alterations as well as identification of neuropathological changes in spasmodic dysphonia (laryngeal dystonia) and voice tremor. We demonstrated that focal dystonia is a disorder of large-scale functional neural networks, where abnormal regional interactions may contribute to network-wide alterations. We also established that abnormal sensory discrimination thresholds in patients with focal dystonias represent a common endophenotypic trait of this disorder. We further showed that clinically and genetically distinct forms of spasmodic dysphonia can be accurately classified based on cortical sensorimotor abnormalities, the latter serving as potential objective diagnostic markers for this disorder. Our laboratory described the first spasmodic dysphonia patient with a causative DYT25 (GNAL) mutation and determined the polygenic risk of focal dystonia. Most recently, we delineated the first effective use of a novel oral medication, sodium oxybate (Xyrem®), in patients with spasmodic dysphonia and voice tremor.
 
The Simonyan laboratory currently uses multi-modal neuroimaging, machine learning and neural population modeling to determine and validate phenotype- and genotype-specific neural markers of dystonia as well as the endophenotypic markers of its development. We are also working on identification of the primary neural determinants of clinical response to sodium oxybate in patients with dystonia and tremor as a potential new therapeutic option. Another goal is to delineate abnormal neurotransmission in dystonia, which would ultimately help identify other novel pharmacological targets. We are applying several genetic strategies, including next-generation sequencing in dystonia families and singleton cases as well as genome-wide association studies in isolated populations, in order to identify new genes and risk factors of spasmodic dysphonia.
 

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Recent Publications

A novel therapeutic agent, sodium oxybate, improves dystonic symptoms via reduced network-wide activity
Kristina Simonyan, Steven J Frucht, Andrew Blitzer, Azadeh Hamzehei Sichani, and Anna F Rumbach. 2018. “A novel therapeutic agent, sodium oxybate, improves dystonic symptoms via reduced network-wide activity.” Sci Rep, 8, 1, Pp. 16111.Abstract
Oral medications for the treatment of dystonia are not established. Currently, symptoms of focal dystonia are managed with botulinum toxin injections into the affected muscles. However, the injection effects are short-lived and not beneficial for all patients. We recently reported significant clinical improvement of symptoms with novel investigational oral drug, sodium oxybate, in patients with the alcohol-responsive form of laryngeal focal dystonia. Understanding the mechanism of action of this promising oral agent holds a strong potential for the development of a scientific rationale for its use in dystonia. Therefore, to determine the neural markers of sodium oxybate effects, which may underlie dystonic symptom improvement, we examined brain activity during symptomatic speech production before and after drug intake in patients with laryngeal dystonia and compared to healthy subjects. We found that sodium oxybate significantly attenuated hyperfunctional activity of cerebellar, thalamic and primary/secondary sensorimotor cortical regions. Drug-induced symptom improvement was correlated with decreased-to-normal levels of activity in the right cerebellum. These findings suggest that sodium oxybate shows direct modulatory effects on disorder pathophysiology by acting upon abnormal neural activity within the dystonic network.
Task-specificity in focal dystonia is shaped by aberrant diversity of a functional network kernel
Stefan Fuertinger and Kristina Simonyan. 2018. “Task-specificity in focal dystonia is shaped by aberrant diversity of a functional network kernel.” Mov Disord.Abstract
OBJECTIVES: Task-specific focal dystonia selectively affects the motor control during skilled and highly learned behaviors. Recent data suggest the role of neural network abnormalities in the development of the pathophysiological dystonic cascade. METHODS: We used resting-state functional MRI and analytic techniques rooted in network science and graph theory to examine the formation of abnormal subnetwork of highly influential brain regions, the functional network kernel, and its influence on aberrant dystonic connectivity specific to affected body region and skilled motor behavior. RESULTS: We found abnormal embedding of sensorimotor cortex and prefrontal thalamus in dystonic network kernel as a hallmark of task-specific focal dystonia. Dependent on the affected body region, aberrant functional specialization of the network kernel included regions of motor control management in focal hand dystonia (writer's cramp, musician's focal hand dystonia) and sensorimotor processing in laryngeal dystonia (spasmodic dysphonia, singer's laryngeal dystonia). Dependent on skilled motor behavior, the network kernel featured altered connectivity between sensory and motor execution circuits in musician's dystonia (musician's focal hand dystonia, singer's laryngeal dystonia) and abnormal integration of sensory feedback into motor planning and executive circuits in non-musician's dystonia (writer's cramp, spasmodic dysphonia). CONCLUSIONS: Our study identified specific traits in disorganization of large-scale neural connectivity that underlie the common pathophysiology of task-specific focal dystonia while reflecting distinct symptomatology of its different forms. Identification of specialized regions of information transfer that influence dystonic network activity is an important step for future delineation of targets for neuromodulation as a potential therapeutic option of task-specific focal dystonia. © 2018 International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society.
Molecular Deconvolution Platform to Establish Disease Mechanisms by Surveying GPCR Signaling
Ikuo Masuho, Sreenivas Chavali, Brian S Muntean, Nickolas K Skamangas, Kristina Simonyan, Dipak N Patil, Grant M Kramer, Laurie Ozelius, Madan M Babu, and Kirill A Martemyanov. 2018. “Molecular Deconvolution Platform to Establish Disease Mechanisms by Surveying GPCR Signaling.” Cell Rep, 24, 3, Pp. 557-568.e5.Abstract
Despite the wealth of genetic information available, mechanisms underlying pathological effects of disease-associated mutations in components of G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signaling cascades remain elusive. In this study, we developed a scalable approach for the functional analysis of clinical variants in GPCR pathways along with a complete analytical framework. We applied the strategy to evaluate an extensive set of dystonia-causing mutations in G protein Gαolf. Our quantitative analysis revealed diverse mechanisms by which pathogenic variants disrupt GPCR signaling, leading to a mechanism-based classification of dystonia. In light of significant clinical heterogeneity, the mechanistic analysis of individual disease-associated variants permits tailoring personalized intervention strategies, which makes it superior to the current phenotype-based approach. We propose that the platform developed in this study can be universally applied to evaluate disease mechanisms for conditions associated with genetic variation in all components of GPCR signaling.
Connectivity profiles of the insular network for speech control in healthy individuals and patients with spasmodic dysphonia
Giovanni Battistella, Veena Kumar, and Kristina Simonyan. 2018. “Connectivity profiles of the insular network for speech control in healthy individuals and patients with spasmodic dysphonia.” Brain Struct Funct, 223, 5, Pp. 2489-2498.Abstract
The importance of insula in speech control is acknowledged but poorly understood, partly due to a variety of clinical symptoms resulting from insults to this structure. To clarify its structural organization within the speech network in healthy subjects, we used probabilistic diffusion tractography to examine insular connectivity with three cortical regions responsible for sound processing [Brodmann area (BA) 22], motor preparation (BA 44) and motor execution (laryngeal/orofacial primary motor cortex, BA 4). To assess insular reorganization in a speech disorder, we examined its structural connectivity in patients with spasmodic dysphonia (SD), a neurological condition that selectively affects speech production. We demonstrated structural segregation of insula into three non-overlapping regions, which receive distinct connections from BA 44 (anterior insula), BA 4 (mid-insula) and BA 22 (dorsal and posterior insula). There were no significant differences either in the number of streamlines connecting each insular subdivision to the cortical target or hemispheric lateralization of insular clusters and their projections between healthy subjects and SD patients. However, spatial distribution of the insular subdivisions connected to BA 4 and BA 44 was distinctly organized in healthy controls and SD patients, extending ventro-posteriorly in the former group and anterio-dorsally in the latter group. Our findings point to structural segregation of the insular sub-regions, which may be associated with the different aspects of sensorimotor and cognitive control of speech production. We suggest that distinct insular involvement may lead to different clinical manifestations when one or the other insular region and/or its connections undergo spatial reorganization.
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Latest News

A new grant award from the Department of Defense

September 25, 2018
BARI: Bilateral Academic Research Initiative
International partnerships for high-impact science
BARI is a pilot program that supports high-risk basic research as a bilateral academic collaboration. BARI’s inaugural year focuses on artificial intelligence and collaborative decision-making and sought proposals that build new frameworks for artificial intelligence agents to more truly team with human counterparts.  BARI also aims to support academic teams from the U.S. and U.K. to combine unique skillsets and approaches and provide rapid advances in scientific areas of mutual potential interest to the U.S. DoD and U.K. MOD.
 
Project Overview
 
This project aims to develop a novel architecture for complex group decision making that integrates, in an unprecedented way, the strengths of human and AI team members while compensating for their respective weaknesses. To address the challenges posed by the project, the proposers have assembled a multidisciplinary team with expertise in AI, machine learning, neural engineering, computer science, neuroscience and cognitive psychology. The team approach builds on many years of highly interdisciplinary research on group decision making assisted by Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) in human and human-machine teams, as well as state of the art machine-learning technology, neuroscience, human-factors and psychophysiologic knowledge on decision making in humans and human teams.
 

Harvard Otolaryngology Spring 2018 issue

June 22, 2018
New Findings in Dystonia - Dr. Simonyan's research is highlighted in the Spring 2018 issue of Harvard Otolaryngology. 
 
“Continuation of [dystonia] research is vital in determining the exact causes and mechanisms of this disorder. This knowledge will be crucial for the future development of novel diagnostic procedures and advanced treatments, which will offer hope to so many people worldwide.”
 
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