A Purdue researcher aims to detect schizophrenia and other psychoses before sickness sets in to implement treatment and prevenative measures.
The Psychophysiological Analysis of Cognition, Emotion and Reward Lab’s primary research involves measuring brain activity via electroencephalography, which tracks and records brain wave patterns through small, flat metal discs called electrodes that are attached to the scalp with wires.
“Using EEG, we can measure the electrical voltage at one’s scalp in real time,” said Keisha Novak, a doctoral student in the College of Health and Human Sciences. “That is, oftentimes we are able to see how the brain is reacting to stimuli before you might even be consciously aware of it.”
Novak, a mentor for undergraduate research assistants, said she’s primarily interested in working with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
Her most recent study, the Cognition and Perspective Experiment, is for her dissertation and is funded by the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.
Novak is recruiting individuals older than 18 from the surrounding community who have not been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder but are at risk for developing one such disorder.
Individuals who can answer “yes” to questions like, “Do you ever feel as if things on TV or radio are meant especially for you?” and “Do you ever think that people can communicate telepathically?” are of interest to participate in the study.
Novak has analyzed EEG data from a large sample of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorders, and she is using that sample as a comparison group for the study.
Physiological methods such as EEG, coupled with tests of memory, attention, concentration and IQ, will be used in the study in hopes to meet Novak’s ultimate goal: to be able to identify a “fingerprint” of risk before people ever get sick.
“This is important so that we may implement preventative care measures and develop treatment modalities to buffer the serious and lifelong cognitive and functioning consequences of psychosis,” Novak said.
Dan Foti, head of PACER Lab and professor of clinical psychology and neuroscience, serves as Novak’s primary research adviser, but also describes himself as her “coach, teacher and cheerleader.”
Novak and Foti are particularly interested in the risk processes for the development of psychosis. The biggest challenge for them is figuring out whether or not any one individual at risk is going to develop a psychotic disorder.
“What’s unique about our study is that we’re taking what we know about the neurological profile of schizophrenia and some patterns that we know to be true in the full-blown sickness,” he said, “and going earlier in time and seeing which pieces of that pattern exist in the earlier stages or in at-risk individuals.”
Symptoms of schizophrenia and other psychoses include hallucinations, loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, and disorganized speech and thought content, among others.
Although a formal diagnosis of a psychotic disorder is rare, about 5-8% of the general population reports experiencing symptoms such as these, which are often called psychotic-like experiences, Novak said.
Many experience PLEs to some degree, like seeing something out of the corner of one’s eye. Others might say they are very superstitious, have had supernatural encounters, hear things like whispers or a bell ringing in the distance even though no one is around. They characteristically withdraw themselves from friends, family, work or school.
“The distinguishing factor here is that these experiences usually don’t cause the person much distress or impairment, and they are able to continue with their day as usual,” Novak said. “Oftentimes that’s all it will ever be — intermittent unusual experiences that can be reasoned away. Other times, these experiences might increase in frequency or severity, which may place that person at risk for meeting criteria for a formal diagnosis in the future.”
“We’re just trying to do our part to switch the field to the preventative-care model,” Foti said. “The biggest predictor of long-term disability and outcome is time left untreated in psychosis, which is the longer folks are experiencing psychotic symptoms without receiving formal treatment.”
Novak’s experiment is not directly aimed at reaching the long-term goal of preventing schizophrenia, but that goal is what she and the PACER Lab are hoping to work toward through this project.
“My hope is to be able to identify these people before they ever become sick,” Novak said, “so we can implement treatment and preventative measures.”