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Schizophrenia seminar
Science & Technology Series: Research Spotlight

Researchers discuss latest schizophrenia research at City

Talks discussed topics as varied as genetics, long-term implications for the brain and the role of novelty in the disease

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

Scientists spoke about the latest research into schizophrenia at a recent seminar event held in the Department of Psychology at City, University of London.

Focusing on the psychology and neuroscience underpinning the condition, five researchers - four from the Department itself - discussed topics as varied as genetics, long-term implications for the brain and the role of novelty in the disease.

Starting off the talks, internationally renowned schizophrenia researcher, Professor Sohee Park from Vanderbilt University, USA discussed social functioning in schizophrenia, and how the condition can be thought of as a disorder of the social brain.

Anomalous bodily experiences and loss of body ownership contribute to the profound self-disturbances that lie at the heart of schizophrenia, and lead to poor social outcome but the cognitive mechanisms underlying the splitting of the body from the self, and the self from the social world have not been extensively studied.

Professor Park spoke about how these social deficits are always there and how it is also likely that high risk children have social problems long before they show any symptoms, with such social issues often very resistant to treatment.

“Right now we don’t have a good way to deal with social deficits. Delusions are always social in nature and often result from the over socialise inanimate objects. This leads to people with schizophrenia falsely attribute personal intention, such as ‘the house spoke to me’, as the neutral or ambiguous input becomes personal and the whole word is alive with meaning,” said Professor Park.

The condition can also lead to patients also feel disconnected from themselves, as not all schizophrenia is about voice hearing as a lot is about the self.

Professor Park also spoke about how we detect other people and how people with schizophrenia have difficulty in detecting certain motion, as by seeing things which aren't always there it can lead to hallucinations and voice hearing.

Other aspects such as working memory (WM) deficits in schizophrenia can lead to people with the condition taking too much of a third person view. When combined with such WM deficits this can lead to a more fragmented sense of time as it can mean that the balance between the self and world is lost.

As Professor Park explained, taken together, misperception, misinterpretation and miscalculation of the internal and external worlds contribute to a subjective experience of unreality and point to the core nature of schizophrenia as the disorder of social self.

Following Professor Park, Dr Anne-Kathrin Fett from City, spoke about the eighteen-year course of cognitive functioning in psychotic disorders following findings from the Suffolk County, NY longitudinal study.

While patients commonly express cognitive problems, little is known about the long-term course of the condition. Therefore this work aimed to establish how things change over time. The research showed most severe cognitive impairments in the schizophrenia spectrum, compared to other psychotic conditions, but similar cognitive declines across psychotic disorders.

The magnitude of declines was generally in line with findings in the general population, however some cognitive domains, such as executive function, verbal knowledge and fluency the decline in different psychotic disorders was seen to exceed normal age associated decline. In terms of predictors of decline there was no consistent pattern, and as Dr Fett emphasised it's important to find out how the findings translate to functioning and also the development of cognitive interventions that can reduce and/or slow decline in cognitive function that precede or exceed normal ageing.

Following Dr Fett, Dr Francesco Rigoli from City spoke discussed his recent research into the area of novelty processing during decision-making in schizophrenia.

Recent studies by Dr Rigoli and colleagues has shown that during decision-making people with schizophrenia are more novelty seeking, in other words they are more attracted by novel objects, people, and situations. As novelty correlates closely with hallucinations, the results suggest that novelty over-attracts patients and that deficits in processing the value of novelty may be involved in aberrant salience, a model which proposes that psychotic symptoms first emerge when chaotic brain reward transmission leads to the attribution of significance to stimuli that would normally be considered irrelevant. It is thought to be one of the key factors in schizophrenia.

Dr Corinna Haenschel, Director of the Centre for Psychological Wellbeing and Neuroscience, then discussed the influence of early visual processing on working memory performance and its dysfunctions in schizophrenia. Working memory is one of the core deficits in schizophrenia and is linked to poor social and independent function.  As a result, current studies are looking at what visual processes contribute to such working memory deficits.

Dr Haenschel’s work has shown early visual processes have an effect on working memory, and as a result visual impairment may provide a bottleneck for working memory dysfunctions. It was also suggested that improving visual problems may also improve working memory and day-to-day functioning.

Lastly, Dr Danai Dima from City spoke about connectomics and genetics in psychosis and how advances in genetics have enabled researchers to conduct genome-wide association studies for schizophrenia.

Recent studies have suggested that there may be both clinical and biological links between autism and schizophrenia. In particular, Dr Dima talked about how such ‘polygenic liability’ for autism and potentially schizophrenia is associated with changes in grey matter concentrations across the brain.

According to Dr Dima, the polygenic risk score – which helps provide predictions for a certain trait inheritance - for these two disorders are not correlated, indicating that although both reflect commonly occurring genetic risk factors, these loci – or location of certain genes - are not shared between these disorders.

Autism in particular develops early in life and is associated with severe neurodevelopmental symptoms, including brain structural changes. As a result, Dr Dima spoke about how the genetic risk for autism might be associated with relatively large changes in brain structure even in individuals not expressing the illness.

That the pattern of associations was widespread across the brain, as expected, supports the use of a multivariate approach to detect these patterns of changes in grey matter, she said.

Following the talks, guests - including a Community Mental Health Advocate from the mental health charity Mind - praised the event, highlighting how it was very accessible and informative.

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