Interview: Assistant Professor, Matteo Martino
My academic training and research experience have provided me with a background in psychiatry and neuroscience. After graduating from medical school and specializing in psychiatry (University of Genoa, Italy), I obtained my PhD degree in neuroscience (University of Genoa, Italy) and two postgraduate master degrees, one on clinics and treatment of mood disorders (University of Pisa, Italy) and the other on affective neuroscience (Maastricht University, Netherlands).
I also spent several periods of training and research work at various international research centers as visiting researcher, including the Mind Brain Imaging and Neuroethics (University of Ottawa, Canada), Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (New York, U.S.), Research Center for Brain and Consciousness (Taipei Medical University, Taiwan), and Mental Health Centre and Psychiatric Laboratory (Sichuan University, Chengdu, China). Then, I worked at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (New York, U.S.) as a postdoctoral fellow. Finally, I joined the Graduate Institute of Mind Brain and Consciousness at the Taipei Medical University as an assistant professor.
My long term research interests are focused on the understanding of the relationship of brain functioning with behavioral and phenomenological patterns, as well as the investigation of the psychopathology and pathophysiology of major psychiatric disorders, bipolar disorder especially. These research areas are complementary in psychiatric neuroscience, since a better understanding of brain physiology is fundamental for the study of brain alterations, while the investigation of the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders may provide valuable insights for a better comprehension of how the brain works. In this regard, bipolar disorder can be of particular relevance. Bipolar disorder is a major psychiatric disorder characterized by manic and depressive states that show opposite patterns of alterations across various psychopathological domains, including psychomotricity, affectivity, and thought. Thus, bipolar disorder can represent a unique model to investigate how changes in behavioral and phenomenological patterns are related to changes in brain functioning. On the other hand, a mechanistic understanding of the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder, represents a crucial step for implementing specific diagnostic tools and effective therapies for these severe and debilitating illnesses.
In the last years I, in strict collaboration with my colleague Dr. Paola Magioncalda, conducted a series of research studies to investigate the potential neurobiological alterations underlying bipolar disorder, using various neuroimaging and laboratory techniques. Our research work showed that mania and depression are related to distinct changes in the functional architecture of intrinsic brain activity. Such intrinsic brain activity represents the neuronal activity that is spontaneously produced by the brain and sets the baseline processing of inputs and outputs from and to the environment. Our findings suggested that a functional reconfiguration of intrinsic brain activity occurs in bipolar disorder with opposite dysbalancing between large-scale networks in mania and depression, underlying the opposite manic-depressive symptomatology (Martino, Magioncalda, et al., PNAS, 2016; Russo, Martino, Magioncalda, et al., Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2020). Further results suggested that such network dysbalancing is associated with distinct changes in the subcortical-cortical coupling and neurotransmitter signaling (Martino, Magioncalda, et al., Schizophrenia Bulletin; Conio, Martino, Magioncalda et al., Molecular Psychiatry, 2020).
Taken together, these data suggest that a relative over-tuning or de-tuning of intrinsic brain activity to the environment may result in the opposite behavioral/phenomenological changes associated with mania and depression. On the other hand, we investigated potential structural brain underpinnings of such functional brain changes and detected abnormalities in the brain’s white matter that correlated with immune-inflammatory alterations in patients with bipolar disorder (Magioncalda, Martino, et al., Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2018). Finally, based on all our prior work, we recently proposed a working model of the relationship between brain functioning and behavioral/phenomenological patterns and applied it to bipolar disorder (Martino and Magioncalda, Molecular Psychiatry, 2021).
My future plans regard the implementation of experimental work to test and improve our working model, especially investigating the specific relationships between immune-inflammatory changes, structural brain alterations, changes in neurotransmitter signaling, reconfigurations of intrinsic brain activity, and psychopathology, with potential implications for a better understanding of brain functioning and its alterations in bipolar illness and other major psychiatric disorders.