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Neural Mechanisms of Working Memory Training and Transfer:

My PhD research in the Clinical Neuroscience of Schizophrenia (CNS) Laboratory at the University of Calgary deals mainly with working memory training in young, healthy populations. Essentially we are trying to see if we can make people smarter via training of working memory.

Overview: Contrary to what is typically believed about the human brain, recent research has found that our brains are actually capable of changing and modifying themselves based on the types of activities we undertake in day to day life. These changes have been found to alter both the structure of the brain (by altering the connections between the brain’s many cells), and also which areas of the brain are used for certain tasks.

Our study proposes to investigate the effects of training people’s working memory (the type of memory used to temporarily remember a phone number or address, for example) on their ability to perform other tasks and reason in a more general capacity. We will be using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to essentially take pictures of participant’s brains before, during, and after they perform these training tasks to see if their brains have changed structure or function compared to a control group who will not undergo training in working memory.

We hypothesize that the images generated through the MRI and fMRI procedures will show that training people’s working memory in this way will be associated with both structural and functional brain changes in the same brain areas that are typically associated with planning, organizing, and initiating activities and actions. I also expect that people who receive training in working memory will also be better at other tasks that they were not trained on, when compared to the control group (i.e. tasks related to fluid intelligence).

Our results, positive or negative, will be significant for large numbers of Canadians.  Knowledge of how cognitive performance might be maximized holds exciting promise in all forms of education, training programs, and rehabilitative settings, for people of all ages, states of mental health, and levels of cognitive functioning. [Image from Deary et al., 2010]



Aberrant Patterns of Visual Facial Information Usage in Schizophrenia:

Overview: While positive and negative symptoms characterize the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, associated impairments in social cognition, such as the ability to accurately perceive different emotions from facial information have recently been found to have an even greater impact on real world outcomes such as employment and social attainment in afflicted individuals. Recent work has also documented deficits in early-stage visual processes in patients with schizophrenia, such as integrating visual information from low spatial frequencies (i.e. crude configural patterns of light and darkness) and high spatial frequencies (i.e. highly detailed information), to form a coherent visual representation.

These lower-level deficits in sensory processing likely contribute to the social cognitive deficits observed in patients with schizophrenia, however the nature of the relationship between these two types of deficits is not well understood. In order to develop a more nuanced view of facial emotion perception deficits in patients with schizophrenia and their relationship to deficits in basic visual processes, the present study utilized the ‘Bubbles’ technique in order to randomly vary the amount of visual information available to participants while they discriminated between neutral and angry faces. This procedure allows us to determine which locations of the face, and which spatial frequencies were utilized by patients with schizophrenia to successfully discriminate between angry and neutral faces as compared to a control group. Information regarding community functioning was also collected (for patients only) via the Social Functioning Scale (SFS) for exploratory correlational analysis.

We hypothesized that patients with schizophrenia would exhibit greater difficulty with the facial recognition task overall compared to controls, and would consequently exhibit greater reaction times in addition to requiring a greater amount of facial information in order to correctly discriminate between angry and neutral faces. Additionally, we expected that patients would exhibit aberrant use of facial locations compared to controls (e.g. mouth area vs. eye area) and that greater deficits in overall task performance in patients would be positively correlated with deficits in community functioning.

We found that patients with schizophrenia do indeed require a greater amount of visual information compared to controls, and also utilize different areas of the face in differentiating between angry and neutral faces – and increasingly so at lower levels of spatial frequency. However, no differences were found in reaction time between the groups. Additionally, a small correlation was found between the degree to which individual patients utilized information from the eye region similarly to controls, and their scores on a measure of social functioning. Our results will be published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2013.

Example Stimuli from the ‘Bubbles’ Task:

Is this face angry or neutral?


Pathological Gambling and Schizophrenia:

Representing a unique collaboration between the Addictive Behaviours Laboratory and the Clinical Neuroscience of Schizophrenia Laboratory here at the University of Calgary, fellow PhD student Igor Yakovenko and myself are looking into the relationship between pathological gambling and schizophrenia.

Overview: Problem gambling may be affecting as many as 1 in 5 individuals with schizophrenia. Despite this, little research has been done to ascertain the association between pathological gambling and psychosis. Most related studies have concluded that pathological gambling mainly co-occurs with substance abuse, mood disorders, and personality disorders. As such, clinicians treating schizophrenia rarely screen for or treat gambling problems. Thus, the effects of pathological gambling on symptoms of schizophrenia and vice versa, such as stress-precipitated acute psychotic episodes, exacerbation of gambling fallacies due to cognitive deficits of schizophrenia and bias in the perception of gambling risk remain largely unexplored and unidentified in clinical practice. Improved awareness among health professionals and researchers may lead to more effective prevention and treatment strategies in psychiatric settings.

Due to the above shortcomings, the aim of this study is to conceptualize dual-diagnosis individuals with schizophrenia and problem/pathological gambling from the perspective of the person. The goal will be to qualitatively explore the possible pathways of impairment and associations between problem gambling and schizophrenia through content analysis and functional analysis. The use of content or thematic analysis has been previously demonstrated to be highly effective for uncovering reasons for resolution and actions taken to resolve in problem gambling. Individuals will complete semi-structured interviews, checklists, questionnaires and answer open-ended questions assessing a variety of known correlates of both gambling and schizophrenia in an attempt to delineate potential mechanisms of interaction between the two categories of disorders.