Imagine not being able to function in society because you are unable to tell the difference between the people who are standing in front of you, and the people who only exist in your mind.
About 1 percent of the world population suffers from schizophrenia, and that rate remains constant across all continents, all races and socioeconomic strata. There is no cure for schizophrenia, so treatment focuses solely on alleviating symptoms. However, new research at UC Davis is attempting to find improved treatments that will dramatically improve patients’ quality of life.
It is a continuing struggle for doctors to find a balance of medications that will both alleviate the schizophrenic symptoms and improve cognition.
“Cognition is very important because it is a strong predictor of outcome,” said Michael Minzenberg, the UC Davis psychiatry researcher who is conducting the study. “It determines whether a person can be a contributing member of a community, stay out of the hospital and live independently,”
Schizophrenia is a chronic and debilitating brain disorder in which the brain encodes every sensory input as important. This leads to schizophrenics hearing imaginary voices, and even creating complex mental conspiracies such as believing that people are reading their minds and plotting to hurt them.
Schizophrenics often recognize and fear the delusions, which can lead to them being extremely agitated and reclusive. This reclusive behavior can often deteriorate into a personality condition known as anhedonia.
According to Minzenberg, patients with anhedonia are completely unable to experience pleasure from usually enjoyable activities like hobbies, exercise or sex. Anhedonia makes schizophrenia diagnosis difficult for doctors because they often confuse the symptoms with simple depression and then prescribe incorrect medication.
“We don’t completely understand how [schizophrenia] works,” said Cameron Carter, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the UC Davis Medical Center. “Brain scans taken during hallucinations are no different than those taken when the brain is receiving real information.”
Creating new treatments is difficult because the human brain has no analogue in nature for us to experiment on. We have no idea how new treatments will affect the brain and body, and it is therefore nearly impossible to start clinical trials on humans. The best alternative to human testing is to create an extremely accurate computer model of the human brain where criteria can be tweaked to match the effects of new medications, and outcomes can be observed and quantified.
Back in May 2011, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin created a neural network computer system called DISCERN that was meant to accurately simulate a human brain with schizophrenia. DISCERN has already accurately predicted hypotheses testable on human subjects.
“A good [computer] model takes cues from biology and nature and builds a system of phenomena,” said Risto Mikkulainen, a professor of neuroscience and computer science at the University of Texas and one of the researchers who built DISCERN. “If the [computer] model is really good, you get more out of it than you put in. You get things that you were not thinking before and can create a predictive experiment that you can do on humans.”
Scientists hope that the research coming from the DISCERN project, along with Minzenberg’s research at UC Davis, funded by a three-year $200,000 grant from the DANA Foundation, shows real promise for improving the lives of schizophrenic patients.
HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.