Pioneering study helps people with schizophrenia control brain activity

New research shows people with schizophrenia can train themselves to control brain regions linked to verbal hallucinations, using an MRI scanner and a computerised rocket game.

Posted: 13 February 2018

The pilot study by researcher Professor Paul Allen at the University of Roehampton and Brain imaging expert, Dr Natasza Orlov of the University of Roehampton and King’s College London’s Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) suggests the pioneering technique might help patients in controlling their symptoms in instances where medication does not work.

The study involved twelve patients who experienced verbal hallucinations on a daily basis. The researchers targeted a region of the brain which is sensitive to speech and human voices, and is hyperactive in people with schizophrenia and verbal hallucinations. After four visits to the MRI scanner, patients were able to reduce neural activity in the speech sensitive region of the brain and were able to control their brain activity without the visual feedback from the space rocket. After training, patients had learned lasting strategies which they could apply during their daily lives.

 Dr Natasza Orlov said: “We encouraged our patients to use the same control strategies they learned whilst in the MRI scanner at home. The patients know when the voices are about to start – they can feel it, so we have encouraged them to immediately put this aid into effect to lessen them, or stop the voices completely. Our study has shown that people with schizophrenia can learn a mental strategy to help their symptoms – something which several years of medication has not helped with.”

 Professor Paul Allen said: “The results of this pilot are astonishing as almost everyone in the patient group was able to control the space rocket. It is still early days in our research, however, patients who took part in the pilot study have told us that the training has helped them to calm their external voices down, so that they were able to internalise them more.”

The study was published today in the journal Translational Psychiatry, and was funded by the Medical Research Council. See an article about the study in BBC News.

100% of the Department of Psychology research is rated 'world leading' or 'internationally excellent' for its impact (REF 2014).

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