Georg Northoff, M.D., Ph.D., Ph.D., FCRP

EJLB-CIHR Michael Smith Chair in Neurosciences and Mental Health Canada Research Chair for Mind Brain Imaging and Neuroethics at University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR)
Researcher of the month: 
Oct 2014

When actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life this past summer, the dark issue of hopelessness was thrust into the spotlight around the world. How, after all, could such a dynamic and insightful personality come to feel that suicide was the only answer to his problems?

Tragically, the experience of hopelessness compels over a million people to end their own life by suicide worldwide each year – on average, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds somewhere in the world. For mental health researchers it begs the questions: What is hopelessness? Can it be measured in the brain? Will a treatment ever be possible?

These are the kinds of questions that linger on neuroscientist Dr. Georg Northoff’s mind before bed every night and get him up every morning.  A Canada Research Chair in Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics at The Royal Ottawa Hospital’s Institute of Mental Health Research and Full Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Northoff is, in fact, working on unlocking the biochemical secrets of hopelessness and depression.

His goal is to identify markers for those most at risk for suicide, and help clinicians one day develop pharmaceutical interventions and psychiatric therapies for those who find themselves in such mental health crises.

Stuck in a moment

Using an arsenal of functional neuroimaging techniques to study the live neural activity of people suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, Dr. Northoff believes that he has discovered that hopelessness ‘lives’ in the midline regions of the brain, the areas found along the bridge between the brain’s two main halves.

“I’ve found that in depressed and suicidal patients, this area of the brain is exceptionally active at all times, where it is normally only active when people are resting and daydreaming,” explains Dr, Northoff.

What this discovery has led him to investigate next is the relationship between the high level of activity in the midline brain and a defining feature of hopelessness, the inability to project thoughts into the future.

“This inability locks people in either the present or the past,” explains Dr. Northoff. “This phenomenon is very present in depression and one of the guiding features of suicide. You cannot hope for the future if you cannot even imagine a future for yourself.”

Dr. Northoff’s research has led him to believe that there is a biochemical basis for this kind of hopelessness, situated in the midline, which disrupts timekeeping and thereby disrupts the integration of new experiences into an individual’s ever-flowing stream of consciousness.

“This flowing quality to our stream of consciousness is extremely important,” explains Dr. Northoff. “When it gets damned up, all of our actions, feelings and thoughts – just like boats on a river – get stuck as well. The resulting feeling of hopelessness is often a driving factor behind suicide.”

Thinking of the future

Having completed his initial training in medicine, psychiatry and philosophy in Germany, Dr. Northoff's background has led him to conduct research in Canada that cuts across all three disciplines, yielding a distinct and internationally renowned perspective of the human brain. He is considered one of the main founders of neurophilosophy, as is illustrated by several papers and books including his two latest books about the self, Unlocking the Brain, Volume 1: Coding and Unlocking the Brain, Volume 2: Consciousness.

While he hopes to develop diagnostic markers for the elevated brain activity of the midline brain so that therapeutic techniques – whether pharmaceutical, cognitive-behavioural, or a combination of both –  can be used by clinicians, Dr. Northoff cautions that we are only at the early stages of understanding the chemical mechanism of the midline phenomenon and other neural substrates.

“Despite major advances in current brain research and neuroscience, we still do not know what exactly the brain does and why it can generate mental states like consciousness,” explains Dr. Northoff. “We all know that our genes encode information and that our computer requires a particular data format, but we do not know the code by which the brain generates its own neural activity. The data format of the brain remains unclear.”

Dr. Northoff is invigorated by such mysteries and is already busy writing an ambitious new book that he hopes will advance human understanding of the brain by partnering science and philosophy into the field of neurophilosophy.

If he is successful, the benefits could reach far beyond our understanding of the brain and the therapeutic applications for psychiatric patients to something more fundamental.

“Neurophilosophy could potentially unlock for the human race the knowledge of who, and what, we are,” says Dr. Northoff. “Once we know that, we will know a lot more about where we are going.”

“Despite major advances in current brain research and neuroscience, we still do not know what exactly the brain does and why it can generate mental states like consciousness,” explains Dr. Northoff. “We all know that our genes encode information and that our computer requires a particular data format, but we do not know the code by which the brain generates its own neural activity. The data format of the brain remains unclear.”

Dr. Northoff is invigorated by such mysteries and is already busy writing an ambitious new book that he hopes will advance human understanding of the brain by partnering science and philosophy into the field of neurophilosophy.

If he is successful, the benefits could reach far beyond our understanding of the brain and the therapeutic applications for psychiatric patients to something more fundamental.

“Neurophilosophy could potentially unlock for the human race the knowledge of who, and what, we are,” says Dr. Northoff. “Once we know that, we will know a lot more about where we are going.”