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    What Funny Faces Can Tell Us About Schizophrenia
    By News Staff | February 4th 2009 12:00 AM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    As many as 2.4 million Americans have schizophrenia so a late or incorrect diagnosis and the lack of effective treatment options can destroy a sufferer's quality of life. Schizophrenia usually emerges between the ages of 18 and 30 but diagnosis before the disease manifests itself could be the key to developing more successful treatments, says Prof. Talma Hendler, of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology.



    Until now, detecting mental illness before symptoms appear has been nearly impossible. Building on her groundbreaking work on facial recognition and brain imaging, Prof. Hendler is hoping to make early diagnosis a reality by identifying the physical markers of mental illness — particularly schizophrenia — inside the brain.


     Samples of the "disturbed" and normal faces used in Prof. Hendler's research to diagnose disease.  Credit: AFTAU

    For years, the mechanism behind the abnormal social behavior that characterizes many schizophrenic patients has been a mystery. To study the physical manifestation of schizophrenia, Prof. Hendler used brain imaging to illustrate differences between the brain activity of schizophrenic patients and healthy adults. Her work is part of the Functional Human Brain Mapping project at Tel Aviv University, Prof. Hendler's findings, published recently in the journal Human Brain Mapping, showed that when presented with photographs of emotional faces with "bizarre" characteristics, the brains of schizophrenic patients were much less reactive than established norms.



    In her previous research published in the journal Neuron, when shown a bizarre "funny face", healthy minds respond with selective activity within the brain, sounding the alarm that there is something disturbing about the image. Prof Hendler then posited that although this selective response is found in visual areas, it has distributed effects in the brain; "The visual areas of the brain are highly connected to other areas, including the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, but in schizophrenic patients, there is a diminished connection between the various parts, leading to disturbed integration of information — and thus to distorted experiences," she says.



    "Recognizing facial emotions is a very early process, so young children could be screened for a predisposition to mental disease by measuring their brain connectivity while detecting emotional cues," Prof. Hendler explains. An objective early marker of the disease would be especially useful for those already considered high risk, such as children with an immediate family member with the disease. With early diagnosis to guide individually tailored treatment, it may be possible to reduce the effect of the disease and, in some cases, even prevent its outbreak.



    By identifying the physical characteristics of a mental disorder, Prof. Hendler is also paving the way for new types of treatment. "Current drugs treat the abnormal behavior, not the brain disorder that is causing the behavior," she says, "We want to be able to develop more specific treatments based on objective brain markers, which are the actual characteristics of the disease."



    Prof. Hendler's work has been published in leading journals in the field of cognitive neuroscience such as the Journal of Neuroscience and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Neuroimage and Neuron. She is currently also working on using brain imaging to characterize and identify predispositions for post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers.



    Future work with "funny faces" will also look at basic human emotions such as shame, envy and guilt. Having a neural marker for these emotions might give clinicians an early-detection tool to spot abnormalities in social interactions. Problems in socializing are a hallmark of schizophrenia.

    Comments

    Dear Sir, Apart from facial expression, is it possible to recognise a schizophrenic person simply by looking at the structure of the face please?

    I have schizophrenia and have tried multiple drugs and am mostly allergic to anti psychotics so my response be prerogative. I currently take 1200 lithium, flexiril for neuralgia pain tardive dyskenisia and grimace facial muscle pain, metoprolol tartrate for hypertension due to inflammation or other, and ambien for sleep terror disorder. I have constant auditory and visual hallucinations with two other personalities that try to takeover my main personality for use of my day to day body and I have found that Ambien and other hypnotic sedatives work better than lithium and all other drugs I have taken, I take ten mg ambien and if I stay awake it causes the voices to fall asleep and become much less responsive and much less hallucinatory, though it increases the persistent sexual arousal syndrome they cause as they move around but even this is less in all at its peak. If they could develop a sedative hypnotic i could take during the daytime that does not cause visual hallucinations I would take it and it would be seventy five percent effective rather than the dull twenty five percent effectiveness of lithium and other antipsychotics that do not cause (in some cases) even worse symptoms than the schizophrenia bacteria by itself without any chemical compounds at all.

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