Dr. Rebecca Todd and Brandon Forys: Understanding neurocognitive processes and mood disorders

October 13, 2022

“It was important to find people we were comfortable making mistakes around."

Dr. Rebecca Todd is an Associate Professor in UBC’s Department of Psychology and a member of the UBC Centre for Brain Health, and Brandon Forys is a first-year PhD student in her lab. They are part of a team using UBC Advanced Research Computing (ARC) to understand how neurocognitive processes are involved in how we respond to stress and in mood disorders. Using ARC, they can measure brain activity and behaviour in advanced ways, such as analyzing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at time-lapsed brain scans as opposed to a single brain image. With so many time points of data and increasingly high-quality image resolution, processing fMRI data would take days without tools like ARC.


Dr. Todd and Forys are interested in the interactions between emotion and cognition. Emotion infuses every corner of our lives and is constantly directing our cognition and actions. We are always surrounded by sights and events that have come to have emotional meaning for us. We either move towards these things or avoid them based on our experience.

However, avoidance can also create problems in those with anxiety or depression. Dr. Todd described mood disorders as an epidemic in younger people. With 30-50% of the undergraduate students who participated in their research registering clinical levels of anxiety or depression or both, furthering the development of effective psychiatric treatments is an important clinical goal.

One project Dr. Todd is working on is a study of active and inhibitory avoidance. Avoidance is an important component of anxiety, but it is less clear how avoidance impacts those with mixed anxiety and depression, which is about half of the people who have major depression. She leverages the rodent research work of Dr. Stan Floresco, a professor also in the UBC Department of Psychology, and also works with the psychiatric team at the UBC Mood Disorders Clinic on this project.



Associate Professor Dr. Rebecca Todd

 You can think of active avoidance like avoiding completing a mid-term essay and inhibitory avoidance like avoiding opening your email inbox. Dr. Todd found a pattern of different active avoidance specific to people who have high anxiety and depression. Then Dr. Floresco works with rodents to replicate the behavioural patterns Dr. Todd sees in humans by mapping them to certain neuromodulators, such as norepinephrine. If high norepinephrine is creating dysfunctional behaviour, can a drug that reduces it help? That is where Dr. Trisha Chakrabarty, an associate professor within UBC Psychiatry, comes in to prescribe drugs to human patients that can then reduce norepinephrine, a fascinating collaboration between researchers that has been supported by a Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health Innovation Fund Kickstart grant and enabled in part by ARC.  


Brandon Forys, PhD student in Dr. Todd's Lab

Dr. Todd’s research also collides with computer science. The fields of design and robotics are interested in learning about human emotion, especially in the age of artificial intelligence. There is an interest in connecting with psychologists to create people-centric designs.


Both Dr. Todd and Forys knew computational heft was needed for big neuroimaging data sets. Matt Smith, manager of research systems at ARC was very helpful in orienting Dr. Todd and Forys to ARC. “It was important to find people we were comfortable making mistakes around,” says Dr. Todd.

Forys had previous experience with high-performance computing through his undergraduate work. He now uses ARC to pre-process and analyze human brain imaging data many gigabytes in size. This work analyzing functional magnetic brain imaging (fMRI) data can now be completed in three to five hours instead of days. He can flexibly set up scripts and is very pleased with the ARC storage solutions such as Chinook as well.


As Forys says, “We are working in a fast-paced environment, applying for grants, want to be accountable to research goals, and quickly adapt our project based on data we see.” He believes potential has grown and we are only beginning to discover the benefits of using tools like ARC as we transition away from relying on standard computing.

Dr. Todd and Forys are seeing an uptick in the number of researchers showing interest in advanced research computing. They believe the UBC ARC graphical interface could continue to become more seamless and students who were once daunted by the prospect of high-performance computing will gravitate toward it.


The ARC Sockeye platform is offered free of charge to the UBC community. It offers nearly 16,000 CPU and 200 GPUs for UBC researchers across all disciplines. Projects with advanced research computing requirements generally involve big data, large computational power, modelling or visualization that cannot be handled by standard computing infrastructure alone.

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