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Splintered Minds

by Kathleen Cason


Intro  |  Hallmarks of schizophrenia  |  Social skills  |  
Relative risks  |  Seeing is believing

 Mind Reading

 The Cost of Madness

 A Who's Who of Schizophrenia

The voices came to stay when she was 25. And then there were other hallucinations — a feeling that something unseen was touching her.

“I was working on my Ph.D. in English then,” said Joan R., a petite middle-aged woman with a pixie haircut and a warm smile. “I got alienated from people. I identified more with the chorus in the Greek myths.”

Joan suffers from schizophrenia, a devastating mental illness that is much misunderstood by the public and still a puzzle to science.

  • is caused by a
    brain abnormality

  • is not split personality

  • affects 1 out of 100,
    more than 2 million Americans

  • strikes young adults
    (age 16 to 30)

  • affects an estimated
    third of the U.S. homeless population

  • costs more than
    $33 billion annually in the U.S.

While Joan now takes medication to control the voices that “talked about bad things,” she can no longer concentrate long enough to read more than a few sentences and can’t remember what she reads; her love of literature is reduced to christening stray cats with names from the Greek and Norse myths.

“Schizophrenia means split mind,” said L. Stephen Miller, a University of Georgia psychology professor who studies the disease. “But it means a split of the mind from reality, not a split of the mind into two parts.”

For more than 12 years, Miller has studied how small changes in a person’s brain can alter behavior, particularly in schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. He is among hundreds of researchers around the world who are trying to unravel the underlying biological mechanisms and genetic nature of schizophrenia.

“I’m interested in looking at what the processes are — whatever negatively impacts the brain to cause some aberrant behavior. It might be developmental difficulties that occur in the brain; it might be insults to the brain,” Miller said.

Brain imaging reveals the structure and activity of the living brain (yellow). To pinpoint changes caused by schizophrenia, a subject may watch patterns on a monitor or mentally manipulate letters as her brain is scanned.

Miller’s research focuses on what psychologists call cognition, which includes many aspects of thinking such as attention, concentration, comprehension, memory and judgment. Cognitive tasks range from simple abilities like making change for a dollar to complex activities that require concentration like playing chess.

“The reason that we focus on cognition is because it’s a window to the function of the brain,” Miller said. “When we see deficits in cognition, then we infer that to mean deficits in the organization or the structure of the brain in some way — the way that the brain functions.”

Miller has been examining deficits in cognition caused by schizophrenia. For example, he uses neuropsychological tests to examine social skills and explore how visual information is processed. By using sophisticated medical technology like magnetic resonance imaging, he tries to uncover structural changes and activity in the brain linked to specific mental tasks. All these techniques are aimed at sorting out which behaviors associated with the disease are linked to genetically inherited changes in the brain.


Intro  |  Hallmarks of schizophrenia  |  Social skills  |  
Relative risks  |  Seeing is believing



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