circosThe 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 the 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

Neuroimaging Applications in Dystonia
Kristina Simonyan. 2018. “Neuroimaging Applications in Dystonia.” Int Rev Neurobiol, 143, Pp. 1-30.Abstract
Dystonia is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive movements. Although the precise mechanisms of dystonia development remain unknown, the diversity of its clinical phenotypes is thought to be associated with multifactorial pathophysiology, which is linked not only to alterations of brain organization, but also environmental stressors and gene mutations. This chapter will present an overview of the pathophysiology of isolated dystonia through the lens of applications of major neuroimaging methodologies, with links to genetics and environmental factors that play a prominent role in symptom manifestation.
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.
The large-scale structural connectome of task-specific focal dystonia
Sandra Hanekamp and Kristina Simonyan. 2020. “The large-scale structural connectome of task-specific focal dystonia.” Hum Brain Mapp.Abstract
The emerging view of dystonia is that of a large-scale functional network disorder, in which the communication is disrupted between sensorimotor cortical areas, basal ganglia, thalamus, and cerebellum. The structural underpinnings of functional alterations in dystonia are, however, poorly understood. Notably, it is unclear whether structural changes form a larger-scale dystonic network or rather remain focal to isolated brain regions, merely underlying their functional abnormalities. Using diffusion-weighted imaging and graph theoretical analysis, we examined inter-regional white matter connectivity of the whole-brain structural network in two different forms of task-specific focal dystonia, writer's cramp and laryngeal dystonia, compared to healthy individuals. We show that, in addition to profoundly altered functional network in focal dystonia, its structural connectome is characterized by large-scale aberrations due to abnormal transfer of prefrontal and parietal nodes between neural communities and the reorganization of normal hub architecture, commonly involving the insula and superior frontal gyrus in patients compared to controls. Other prominent common changes involved the basal ganglia, parietal and cingulate cortical regions, whereas premotor and occipital abnormalities distinctly characterized the two forms of dystonia. We propose a revised pathophysiological model of focal dystonia as a disorder of both functional and structural connectomes, where dystonia form-specific abnormalities underlie the divergent mechanisms in the development of distinct clinical symptomatology. These findings may guide the development of novel therapeutic strategies directed at targeted neuromodulation of pathophysiological brain regions for the restoration of their structural and functional connectivity.

Latest News

International Experts Meet to Explore New Treatments for Dystonia Using Brain-Computer Interfaces

September 10, 2020

Mass Eye and Ear researchers Dr. Kristina Simonyan and Dr. Davide Valeriani were awarded a grant from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University to organize a virtual seminar on September 10-11, 2020, which explored Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) for transforming the treatment of dystonia. The seminar (by invitation only) brought together a diverse, interdisciplinary group of researchers from the fields of brain imaging, BCIs, computer science, and biotechnology, and clinicians from the fields of neurology, neurosurgery, otolaryngology, and speech-language pathology to explore a roadmap for transforming dystonia treatment. Read more here.

Radcliffe

Harvard Brain Science Initiative - Neuroscientist of the Week

January 17, 2020

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Harvard’s diverse neuroscience community — hundreds of basic researchers and physician-scientists, are engaged in the process of discovery across campuses and disciplines in Cambridge and the Greater Boston Area. 

Dr. Simonyan was features as the Neuroscientist of the Week #60. Read more here

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Humans of HBI - Arman Simonyan

August 19, 2019

The neuroscience community at Harvard is brimming with talented and interesting individuals, each with their own unique stories on how they got here, what motivates them, what passions and dreams they have, who inspires them and what they do for fun.

Read here about Arman Simonyan, who visited and worked in the lab this Summer. 

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