‘Retraining the Brain’ in Patients with Schizophrenia

‘Retraining the Brain’ in Patients with Schizophrenia

Posted: April 10, 2010

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From The Quarterly, Fall 2010

The key to a better quality of life for people with schizophrenia lies in finding effective therapies for reducing the cognitive impairments that are the most lasting and destructive effects of the illness.

Clinical trials are underway for a potential new, noninvasive method to counteract or forestall cognitive decline in people who have schizophrenia or who are at risk for developing the illness.

The brain functions through interactions between neurons and neural networks. Those interactions are impaired in schizophrenia. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change the neural “conversation” through experience. The principles of plasticity show that experience changes the structure and function of the brain. We are learning that it is possible to tap into that process to improve the cognitive deficits of people with schizophrenia through brain retraining.

Preliminary results of a pilot program developed in collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), involving the use of simple stimuli are promising. Patients are exposed to auditory and visual stimuli, and are asked to make discriminations as to whether various pairings are similar or different. The program is highly repetitive, and provides a great deal of feedback. It extends over a number of months of daily training, five or six days a week. Results from the initial trial show a considerable improvement in the patients, with good retention of improvements over time.

There is increasing evidence that cognitive deficits characteristic of schizophrenia precede the first signs of psychosis. Two new studies are currently under way in collaboration with the UCSF group. One involves first-episode patients who have already developed psychosis. The goal is to see if their cognitive functioning can be improved. The second group consists of young people thought to be at risk who are not yet psychotic. In this case, the goal is to improve their cognitive functioning, school performance, etc., but also, importantly, to see if in some cases the training can actually prevent transition to psychosis.

Cameron S. Carter, M.D.                                                          

NARSAD Scientific Council Member

Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology   

Director, Imaging Research Center

University of California, Davis

In partnership with University of California, Davis, The M.I.N.D. Institute, UC Davis Health System


Discovery to Recovery through Science

More than 40 institutions across the United States and Canada partnered with NARSAD in

presenting its “Healthy Minds Across America” series of public talks. Each event helped to bring science to families seeking hope for better treatments of a broad range of mental illnesses.