SIRS Research Stories

Théo Korchia: Improving The Treatment Of Schizophrenia

Théo Korchia: Improving The Treatment Of Schizophrenia

My name is Théo KORCHIA, and I am a French psychiatrist, particularly involved in the treatment of early-onset schizophrenic disorders. 

First of all, I'd like to thank the Schizophrenia International Research Society for honouring me with this prestigious award, as well as the Faculty of Medical and Paramedical Sciences at Aix-Marseille University (France) and the Assistance Publique des Hôpitaux de Marseille (APHM), which supported me and enabled me to spend a year at McGill University in Montreal. 

Schizophrenia is a pathology often shrouded in mystery and prejudice, which profoundly affects the lives not only of those who suffer from it, but also those around them. 

Management of the first psychotic episodes determines the outcome and prognosis of patients, and it is therefore necessary to improve it. Generally speaking, my work highlights the value of pharmacogenetics, adapting and personalizing the antipsychotic treatment to different genetic profiles for greater efficacy. Consequently, various side-effects of antipsychotic therapy, notably sexual dysfunction which is very disabling and leads to discontinuation of treatment, are drastically reduced. Patient motivation must also be strengthened by including them in therapeutic decisions to improve overall quality of life. 

A particularly innovative aspect of my work concerns the impact of sexual dysfunction in patients suffering from schizophrenia. This issue, which has long remained on the fringes of psychiatric research, is crucial to patients' quality of life. Sexual dysfunction can be both a symptom of the illness and a side-effect of treatment, making it a dual challenge to overcome. 

My perseverance on this issue has led to the publication of a meta-analysis of over 21,000 patients worldwide, in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. 

Our study reveals with edifying clarity the high frequency of sexual dysfunction in individuals with schizophrenia spectrum disorders, showing an overall prevalence of 56.4%, with great variation in the types of dysfunction. This underlines the urgency of no longer neglecting adverse sexual effects in the treatment of schizophrenia. In the same way that weight gain or somnolence are side-effects commonly considered in the evaluation of antipsychotic treatments, it is crucial to include sexual dysfunction in our benefit-risk analysis. Recognizing and addressing these adverse effects goes beyond improving patients' quality of life; it represents a significant step forward in establishing a solid therapeutic alliance. Open communication about these issues, which are often stigmatized or played down, fosters a relationship of trust between doctor and patient, which is essential for effective management of schizophrenia. By taking these undesirable effects into account, we are improving not only adherence to treatment, but also the overall management of the patient, by recognising the importance of sexual health as a fundamental component of the patient's well-being. 

This study therefore represents a significant advance, opening-up new prospects for treatments that are more respectful and tailored to patients' needs. 

What drives my research is the conviction that innovation in psychiatry is not limited to the discovery of new drugs. It also lies in our ability to rethink the way we treat patients, by integrating dimensions of their experience that have been underestimated until now. The aim is twofold: to improve the quality of life of people suffering from schizophrenia and to reduce the obstacles to effective treatment, particularly those associated with the side effects of medication. 

The implications of the studies I lead aim to have a direct impact on clinical practice by providing healthcare professionals with the tools they need to build a solid therapeutic alliance, thereby encouraging adherence to treatment and improving clinical outcomes. Considering sexual dysfunction, and more broadly the side effects of antipsychotics, is a concrete example of this influence. 

My vision is of a dynamic psychiatry that is constantly evolving, where care is tailored to the uniqueness of each individual, and where each scientific advance lights the way towards better mental health. 

I am therefore grateful to be able to share with you not only my research objectives, but also my vision of a future in which the management of schizophrenia is more enlightened, more effective and, above all, more humane. The road is long, the challenges many, but the passion that drives my quest is unshakeable. With determination and perseverance, we can provide meaningful answers to those struggling with mental suffering, and open up new horizons for the psychiatry of tomorrow. 

Hyeon-Seung Lee: The Research Of An Early-Career Scientist On Schizophrenia & Self-Disturbance

Hyeon-Seung Lee: The Research Of An Early-Career Scientist On Schizophrenia & Self-Disturbance

Hyeon-Seung Lee

Individuals with depression often report their core belief of "I am worthless and unlovable." Individuals with anxiety disorders and OCD often report “what if” statement as a sign of excessive worry that leads to the thoughts of the worst-case scenario. Then, what would be a representative sign of schizophrenia? It is difficult to pick just one phenomenon given the multifaceted nature of the disorder, but I would pick "as if" statements related to the sense of self. Past research points out that self-disturbances are intertwined with the emergence of schizophrenia symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. People at-risk often describe their experiences like this: “It feels 'as if' I am untuned to my body.” The anomalous feeling of altered self (agency, body ownership, self-boundary, and the experience of sensation, perception, and emotion) is a salient feature in the lives of those with schizophrenia. Bleuler’s original conceptualization of schizophrenia as that of the splitting of the mind and Kraepelin’s analogy of “an orchestra without a conductor” that indicates “a loss of inner unity”, both emphasize aberrations in the basic sense of self.  These self-disturbances have been shown to be important for predicting functional outcomes.  

Although the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) include self-related features, self-disorder is not a prominent feature in either approach. Moreover, the sense of self has been ignored in the diagnosis, research, and treatment of schizophrenia due to lack of reliable and valid measures. With new methodological advances, it is now possible to empirically investigate the etiology and nature of self-disorders. As an early career researcher working with Dr. Sohee Park and multidisciplinary collaborators, I have developed and implemented novel experimental paradigms to elucidate and measure aspects of self-disturbances in schizophrenia. For instance, I have used virtual reality (VR) based measures to assess the neurocognitive representation of bodily space (i.e., peripersonal space) and how it is linked to schizophrenia symptoms. I also utilized VR-based social skills training to provide simulation and rehearsal of interpersonal interactions in realistic settings rather than explicitly teaching social cognitive skills to individuals with schizophrenia. In addition, I use computerized tools to visualize embodied emotions, manipulate cortical activities with brain stimulation, and assess the integrity of frontoparietal networks with neuroimaging to fully investigate the self-disturbances, symptoms, and social dysfunctions in schizophrenia. 

Specifically, my master’s thesis focused on the abnormal spatial self-consciousness in schizophrenia formed through multisensory processing. As objects or people approach one’s personal space, multisensory neurons in the frontoparietal brain facilitate appropriate reactions. I used VR-based multisensory integration tasks to identify the inflection point where multisensory reaction time is facilitated, which estimates the size and slope of personal space. I found that individuals with schizophrenia generate small but unclearly-defined personal space boundaries relative to controls in the social context. The size or shape of personal space was associated with the severity of negative symptoms and hallucinations. In an ongoing review study, I further demonstrated how personal space is altered in various mental disorders (e.g., anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorders, etc.). The personal space size is enlarged in various disorders; however, the self-space is more solidly formed in individuals with anxiety and autism spectrum disorders, while the boundary is unclearly generated in those with schizophrenia. My dissertation research further examines the altered representation of personal space, investigating the effect of threat, social distress, and socioemotional factors. 

Another line of research is investigating cross-cultural differences in the manifestation of psychosocial dysfunction. Previously, I examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of the general population from various cultures. Given the pandemic and social distancing were increasing feelings of social disconnection and loneliness, I expected that social disconnection and loneliness play a major role in poor physical and mental health. Delving into how cultural differences in public health strategies and compliance of the general population yield variances in reported stress, mood, anxiety, and psychotic experiences provided me with either a microscopic or a macroscopic view of psychosocial dysfunction. Moreover, I investigated culture-general and specific aspects of mental health symptoms and abnormal self-related experiences in schizophrenia. Previous cross-cultural works highlighted that though symptoms and self-disturbances are salient and prevalent in both Western and non-western cultures, there were culture-specific aspects such as relatively high tolerance for anomalous self-experiences and less attenuated embodied emotion in Koreans. I would like to continue to investigate cultural effects on psychosocial functions. 

Psychiatric research is still mostly driven by researchers from Europe and North America. As a Korean scientist, I believe we have valuable contributions to make to this field and I hope to increase the representation of Korean and other Asian scientists in the field of schizophrenia research. Increased diversity of ideas and approaches will surely positively impact the future of the Schizophrenia International Research Society (SIRS). 

Bobana Samardžija, mag. pharm. inv.: Our Research Holds Implications for the Future Diagnostics & Therapeutics

Bobana Samardžija, mag. pharm. inv. Our Research Holds Implications for the Future Diagnostics & Therapeutics
Bobana Samardžija, mag. pharm. inv.
Chronic mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and major depressive disorder, are widespread and serious conditions that profoundly affect the lives of millions worldwide. Despite their prevalence, our comprehension of these disorders remains incomplete, and current therapeutic strategies often merely alleviate symptoms rather than target root causes. While extensive research has identified numerous genes associated with schizophrenia and major depressive disorder, their individual impacts tend to be marginal or specific to particular groups, underscoring the substantial influence of environmental factors alongside genetic predispositions.
Innovative approaches to unravel the complexities of these disorders are emerging, with a particular focus on disruptions in protein balance within the brain. This novel perspective draws inspiration from the realm of neurodegenerative diseases, where the accumulation of toxic protein aggregates significantly contributes to pathology.
At the University of Rijeka in Croatia, we examine post-mortem brain samples from individuals diagnosed with depression, Alzheimer's disease, those who have tragically died by suicide, as well as control subjects. We aim to elucidate the patterns of protein aggregation across diverse brain regions. Furthermore, we are investigating the possibility of multiple proteins aggregating together within the same individual and assess protein aggregation in cell cultures, all in hope to shed light on the intricate mechanisms underlying chronic mental illnesses.
Complementing these endeavors, we are also pioneering efforts to analyze aggregating proteins in blood samples obtained from living patients diagnosed with these challenging conditions, aiming to establish a non-invasive diagnostic tool that could revolutionize clinical practice.
By venturing beyond the genetic determinants, our research holds implications for the future of diagnostic methodologies and therapeutic interventions targeting chronic mental illnesses. This perspective empowers us to chart new paths towards understanding and addressing the multifaceted nature of these disorders, ultimately fostering hope for enhanced outcomes and improved quality of life for patients and their families.

Kirsten Borup Bojesen, MD, PhD: A Clinician-Scientist Studying Schizophrenia

Kirsten Borup Bojesen, MD, PhD 

Residency trainee in psychiatry, postdoctoral researcher 

Copenhagen University Hospital, Center for Neuropsychiatric Schizophrenia Research (CNSR), Mental Health Center Glostrup, Nordstjernevej 41, 2600 Glostrup 

As a clinician-scientist, I have been struck by the large proportion of patients with schizophrenia insufficiently treated with antipsychotics and by the negative impact of cognitive deficits on everyday life. This has inspired me to explore the neurotransmitter aberrations underlying insufficient treatment response and cognitive deficits in patients with psychosis with a key focus on glutamate and GABA. My hope is that research on the impact of glutamatergic and GABAergic neurotransmitter disturbances on insufficient treatment outcome and cognition can pave the way for development of novel therapeutics.  

My research has focused on glutamatergic and GABAergic aberrations in initially antipsychotic-naïve patients with first-episode psychosis and the impact of these disturbances on short- and long-term treatment outcome as well as cognitive performance. Specifically, we have found that higher levels of glutamate in thalamus and lower levels of GABA in dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex (dACC) are present from illness onset in antipsychotic-naïve first-episode patients and related to poor short-term treatment outcome after 6 and 26 weeks. Moreover, low GABA levels in dACC at illness onset are associated with poor functional outcome after two years of illness, and lower levels of glutamate in the dACC are associated with impaired cognitive function. Going further into the neurobiological underpinnings of insufficient treatment response, we investigated if brain glutamate and GABA levels were related to striatal dopaminergic function that is the main target of antipsychotic compounds. We observed that lower GABA levels in dACC were associated with higher striatal perfusion during the first two years of illness, suggesting that prefrontal GABA levels have a downregulatory effect on striatal activity and may be a novel treatment target. Furthermore, an aberrant interrelation between dACC levels of GABA and dopamine synthesis capacity in nucleus accumbens assessed with positron emission tomography could identify antipsychotic-naïve patients from healthy controls, whereas individual neurotransmitters were unable to do so, suggesting that aberrant interactions between neurotransmitters are more crucial for development of schizophrenia than single neurotransmitter disturbances. Currently, we examine the trajectory of glutamate levels in dACC and thalamus during the first two years of illness and relate neurotransmitter levels to long-term treatment outcome and cognitive function. Moreover, we investigate if a glutamatergic compound developed for neurological disorders is effective in patients with first-episode psychosis.   

Our findings so far imply that treatment targeting glutamatergic and GABAergic disturbances can be beneficial in first-episode patients during the first two years of illness. As novel treatments are warranted not only during first-episode psychosis but also in the more chronic stage of the illness, we are currently preparing to re-examine brain levels of glutamate and GABA in the same cohort of patients and healthy controls after ten years.  

I am always thrilled to attend the SIRS conference and get inspirated by both junior and senior researchers dedicating their time to improve the treatment and everyday life for patients with schizophrenia and psychotic disorders. The SIRS early career award 2023 and mentor program was very helpful in expanding my international network, and I especially gained from guidance on funding, publishing strategies, and life-work balance in academia. The program has supported me in developing my research career trajectory. It makes me believe that our combined international effort into unravelling the neurobiological and environmental factors underlying schizophrenia will lead to development of novel treatment options during the next decades. 

Dr. Natalia Mansur Haddad’s Perspective & Experience as a Psychiatric Researcher

By: Dr. Natalia Mansur Haddad

I have enjoyed studying and understanding schizophrenia since the initial period of my first graduation, still in the field of psychology. Afterwards, I went to medical school to become a psychiatrist. Thereby, I have always been fascinated by psychosis in general as an area of ​​study and research. During the last 10 years of clinical practice, I delved deeper into the care of chemically dependent patients and substance use disorders. At the confluence of these subjects, I have the privilege of studying the endocannabinoid system in a population with psychosis and how the impact of cannabis can influence its regulation. 

In 2022 I had the great opportunity to win the SIRS Early Career Award. On that occasion, I was able to show the partial results of our study, which pointed to the use of cannabis as a factor that influences the reduction in endocannabinoid 2-AG values ​​in plasma. In the following years, we continued to study the ECS and found an increase in peripheral CB2 receptors associated with the use of non-clozapine antipsychotics. The data complement the current literature, which is ambiguous and should be further studied. 

 It was very important for a young investigator like me to attend to an international meeting and it was a unique opportunity to establish international collaboration with important researchers in the field. It was a great honor and an encouragement to proceed with my research. I recently published an article with the findings of my thesis on changes in the endocannabinoid system of patients with schizophrenia in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience Journal. 

I have started my master's degree in February 2020, upgraded to doctorate degree and my thesis defense will take place next month.
All this development and career evolution in recent years gives me confidence to continue researching and sharing the results of my research with the international community. I believe that one of the main objectives is to align research results with clinical practice, thus contributing to the development of new screening methods for the disorder such as biomarkers, which can improve the diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of these individuals. 

My research group is very diverse, we work at a Public Hospital and University in São Paulo - Brazil, and adverse situations are very frequent in an underrepresented country. However, year after year we prove that we can carry out quality research and talk to researchers from around the world, contributing relevant data from a large and diverse population sample with a major impact on global health. We intend to continue building knowledge and strengthening ties with the international community. 

Ana P. Pinheiro, University of Lisbon

Humans are innately social beings and, in almost all cultures, vocal communication is the dominant mode for social interactions. It is, therefore, not surprising that voices became the most salient auditory signal. We often use voices to communicate verbal information but voices are much more than that: they convey a wealth of socially relevant information about the speaker (e.g., age, sex, emotional state, social traits), which can be decoded from the briefest of utterances. Voices are, therefore, fundamental for social experience.

My research is focused on understanding how humans make sense of and use vocal information to communicate with each other. I am particularly interested in how these mechanisms, when altered, may explain the characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia, such as auditory verbal hallucinations. The investigation of language and communication in schizophrenia during my PhD convince me of the importance of looking at voice perception mechanisms to understand the experience of hearing voices without matching external acoustic input. I pursued the investigation of these mechanisms during my Post-Doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School, and later as director of the Voice, Emotion & Speech Laboratory at the University of Lisbon.

Auditory verbal hallucinations remain one of the most puzzling phenomena of human experience: they are self-generated but are typically experienced as a form of communication from another (or other) speaker(s). They are one of the most troubling symptoms in psychosis and thus contribute to significant suffering. However, hallucinations may also be reported in the general population without need for psychiatric care. Despite many efforts to explain this puzzling phenomenon, the underlying pathophysiology is still poorly understood. My studies suggest that auditory verbal hallucinations co-opt the neurocognitive mechanisms underpinning voice generation and perception. For example, we documented disrupted voice feedback processing in both adult psychotic patients and nonclinical voice hearers, which may link to dysfunctional cerebellar circuitry. Based on these findings, we put forward a framework that accentuates the role of the cerebellum in voice feedback processing and auditory verbal hallucinations. These findings add to prior studies showing that predictive processing dysfunction is at the basis of auditory verbal hallucinations. We also showed that hallucination proneness is associated with hypersalient responses in voice-sensitive regions of the cerebral cortex to acoustic features coding speaker identity.

Auditory verbal hallucinations are associated with greater risk of conversion to psychosis compared to other types of hallucinations, contribute transdiagnostically to psychopathology in adolescents, and predict poor functional outcome in schizophrenia. Detecting early alterations at the neurophysiological or behavioral levels before the development of full-blown psychotic symptoms could radically modify the risk trajectory. Voice processing could be a strong candidate for differentiating between vulnerability, risk, and clinical profiles. This is an innovative concept and of high relevance as voice-sensitive tasks are relatively cheap and reliable measures that could be implemented in larger samples with a longitudinal outlook. Our ongoing studies are testing this hypothesis.

This work has been a collaborative effort and I have been extremely lucky to have found brilliant mentors who continue to inspire me, including Margaret Niznikiewicz or Sonja Kotz. I am also deeply grateful for all the learning and collaboration opportunities I have found as a SIRS member since early in my graduate training, and especially honored to have received the 2022 SIRS Rising Star Award.

My ongoing studies continue the quest for a mechanistic understanding of auditory verbal hallucinations aiming to inform future preventive strategies. Investigating vocal communication might prove especially informative to clarify why hallucinated voices are typically experienced as social entities and why they may acquire an emotional quality.

Leandro Valiengo, University of Sao Paulo

Leandro Valiengo, University of Sao Paulo

We are excited to share that the SIRS 2020 Research Fund Awardee, Leandro Valiengo, has agreed to a SIRS Q&A. View our questions and his answers below!

What were you able to achieve with the SIRS Research Fund Award? 

The negative symptoms of schizophrenia are very hard to treat and very disabling. If photobiomodulation is demonstrated to be effective in future clinical trials, then it may help patients and their families to cope with the disease and improve their life quality.

How has your work shaped today's ongoing research?  

Today we are focusing on expanding the results of this pilot assessment by developing new clinical trials with new variables and more patients..

How has your work made an impact on patient's lives? 

The negative symptoms of schizophrenia are very hard to treat and very disabling. Giving them an option of treatment with favorable results, helps them and their families to cope with the disease and improves their life quality.

What is your ultimate goal in research? 

Now I want to explore the benefits of this technique (and maybe other types of noninvasive neuromodulation) in other symptoms of schizophrenia. My main objective is to improve the quality of life of patients with schizophrenia (and other severe mental disorders) through new treatments that have fewer side effects. I also intend to keep mentoring graduation and post-graduation students to initiate or expand their research skills.

What made you decide to pursue research into psychosis/schizophrenia? 

Treatment resistance in Schizophrenia is very common. This condition inputs a high rate of disability, and the negative symptoms are challenging to treat and limit the quality of life of the patients. So, the search for new treatments in this area, especially concerning the negative symptoms of the disorder, was imperative.

What made you pursue these specific research methods (i.e. genetics, neuroimaging, postmortem, etc.)?

I used brain photobiomodulation because there were other studies using this technique for Alzheimer's disease with promising results. My hypothesis was that if we used the same technique to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, known to be dysregulated in the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, the patients would have an improvement in symptom control.

 What researcher/scientist (doesn't have to be a SIRS member) has influenced your work the most and how?  

My mentor is Prof. Andre Brunoni, from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who studies the use of neuromodulation techniques for humor disorders. He has a brief but extremely productive research career, with some impressive results, and has already published in highly prestigious periods, like NEJM and Lancet.


The Research Fund Award program is intended to provide research funds for junior investigators who have an important idea or hypothesis to test, but are lacking in research funds to do so. You can find out more by clicking here.

Parsa Ravanfar, University of Melbourne

Parsa Ravanfar, University of Melbourne

I am a medical graduate and PhD candidate in neuropsychiatry, aiming to pursue a career in clinical psychiatry and neuroscience. During my clinical training, I learned about the large impact of schizophrenia on the individual and community, which attracted me to the research of schizophrenia. I am impressed by the complex phenomenology of psychosis and how little we still know about it. In my research, I am particularly passionate about the biological underpinnings of psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia. I believe that by understanding the cellular- and network-level brain mechanisms that are associated with schizophrenia, we will be able to develop more effective treatment modalities to fill the gaps in our current therapeutic options. Advanced neuroimaging modalities allow us to study the brain in individuals with schizophrenia in real time, providing a unique opportunity to understand the brain as it functions. My PhD research focuses specifically on imaging of iron content in the brain in schizophrenia. Iron is closely linked to dopaminergic neurotransmission, one of the main neurotransmitter systems implicated in schizophrenia. At SIRS 2022, I presented the findings of our group that describes higher content of iron in specific brain regions accompanied by network wide alterations of iron distribution in people with schizophrenia. Excess iron leads to neural damage by generating oxidative stress. Therefore, it is possible that this iron accumulation could be associated with the structural brain changes and cognitive decline that are observed in individuals with schizophrenia. By attending SIRS 2022, I was able to present my study to research groups from around the world and learn about their scientific discoveries relevant to my work. This helped me reshape my research ideas and deepen my understanding of several pathologic cellular processes other than oxidative stress that are associated with iron burden. I met leaders in the field with whom I am hoping to collaborate to uncover more of the unknowns about biological processes in schizophrenia.

As my future direction, I am aiming to continue using advanced neuroimaging tools to understand brain changes in psychiatric illnesses with a primary focus on schizophrenia. Pending further studies and expanding our knowledge about oxidative stress and iron in schizophrenia, we can think about new therapeutic options to mitigate oxidative stress or reduce iron content in the brain, which could potentially alleviate the brain changes and symptoms of schizophrenia.

The Early Career Award program is intended to sponsor individuals who have, through their research, teaching or clinical activities, demonstrated a professional and scientific interest in the field of schizophrenia research. You can find out more by clicking here.

Cecilie K. Lemvigh, Copenhagen University Hospital

Cecilie K. Lemvigh, Copenhagen University Hospital

My interest in schizophrenia began already as a young university student and was motivated by a growing curiosity of how the human mind works. I am particularly interested in the developmental perspective on cognitive and brain maturation to examine trajectories leading to psychopathology. Currently, a precise understanding of the abnormal processes resulting in psychosis is lacking. I strongly believe that a better understanding of complex developmental trajectories may help progress the field in terms of more effective prevention programs, improved diagnosis, and individualised treatment strategies.

My presentation at the 2022 SIRS Annual Congress focused on this issue by examining how the combination of multiple early risk factors such as parental history of psychosis, low birth weight, premature birth, winter/spring birth, urbanicity, immigration status, paternal age, maternal smoking during pregnancy, and Apgar scores influence the age of illness onset in children, adolescents, and adults with psychosis. We conducted a nationwide register study of all individuals in Denmark receiving a schizophrenia spectrum diagnosis from 1973-2018 (N≈30.000) and a healthy control sample (N≈140.000). Here we found that parental history of psychosis, advanced paternal age, maternal smoking and low birth weight independently increased the risk of a schizophrenia spectrum disorder. Subgroup analyses based on sex revealed that advanced paternal age only increased the risk in females. Approximately 20% of the patients could be characterized as child-onset cases (<18 years) with female sex and parental history of psychosis as significant predictors of having an early onset. We also observed a cumulative effect of the early risk factors on age of illness onset with more risk exposures resulting in an earlier age of onset. These findings provide a basis for future treatment strategies in terms of individual risk stratification and early intervention, which from a health policy perspective is necessary in order to prevent, delay or attenuate the impact of schizophrenia spectrum disorders.

In ongoing studies, we relate the register data to our clinical cohorts and explore how these early risk factors influence cognitive performance at the time of illness onset. A better understanding of how multiple early risk factors acting in combination influence neurodevelopment may shed light on the mechanism underlying cognitive deficits in schizophrenia.

The inclusion of register data limits the effect of recall bias when examining exposures occurring many years prior to illness onset. The combination of clinical and register data is highly unique worldwide and will hopefully contribute with valuable knowledge to the field of psychosis.

Participating in SIRS 2022 and receiving the honour of an early career award was highly beneficial to further broaden my current knowledge and expertise, expand my international network, exchanging ideas and establishing new collaborations.

Finally, although we already know a lot about the development of the brain, we still have a lot to learn regarding the abnormal processes leading to cognitive impairments and emerging psychopathology. Much more research is needed to develop more effective treatments and improve the life of our patients. In this regard, I would like to express my deepest gratitude and appreciation towards all the patients in our studies for putting research before their own suffering, sharing a piece of their story and enduring long hours of psychiatric evaluation and neuropsychological testing.

The Early Career Award program is intended to sponsor individuals who have, through their research, teaching or clinical activities, demonstrated a professional and scientific interest in the field of schizophrenia research. You can find out more by clicking here.

Maria Fransisca Alonso Sanchez, Western University

Maria Fransisca Alonso Sanchez, Western University

One of the factors that has inspired me to work in psychosis and schizophrenia research is the challenge to improve the functional impairment of persons with schizophrenia and the current therapeutic approaches available. As a speech and language pathologist (SLP) I have a particular interest in the functionality, quality of life, and social inclusion of people, and as a researcher, I know that we must put efforts into generating evidence-based therapeutic mechanisms that help us to address these issues.  

In this context, my work so far has focused on finding meaningful patterns in the speech of people with schizophrenia and how the words they use relate to each other. Specifically, we observed that people within their first episode of psychosis used more words that are synonyms or are very similar to each other throughout their discourse, i.e., they had more inefficient discourse. This is a fundamental feature at the level of communication, but we went further and wanted to understand how these patterns relate to other cognitive domains, in particular interference control. Interference control is a cognitive function that allows us to select relevant information from irrelevant information for a particular context. Indeed, we observed that aberrant word selection is correlated with interference control. We then conducted a 6-month follow-up in a section of our sample and observed that neither speech inefficiency nor negative symptoms improved with pharmacological treatment. Finally, with an emphasis on unraveling how these patterns are associated with certain brain areas of the language network, we performed an analysis of resting-state effective connectivity with functional MRI in people with first episode of schizophrenia. We observed that there are two areas of great interest that are modulated by ineffective speech, i.e., these areas could be involved in this phenomenon and therefore could be possible targets for stimulation or treatment. These topics have been a priority for me as they have potential use in the implementation of language intervention programs in combination with brain neuromodulation for people with schizophrenia. There is still a lot of work to be done to understand the relationship between language and the brain language network.  

I believe it will be a significant and rewarding challenge for future researchers from translational cognitive neuroscience to incorporate this new knowledge and improve quality of life for people experiencing schizophrenia. This new knowledge can also be utilized to generate evidence-based intervention programs that are effective and efficient. Finally, I would like to remark that as an SLP we have another challenge, which is to be part of the mental health team to implement these interventions. However, this is not automatic and we need more people who specialize in the area because working with people with aphasia or dementia is not the same as working with persons with schizophrenia. I firmly believe that if we work on evidence-based programs and specialization in mental health, SLPs can provide a great contribution to the intervention and treatment process for people with schizophrenia.  

The Early Career Award program is intended to sponsor individuals who have, through their research, teaching or clinical activities, demonstrated a professional and scientific interest in the field of schizophrenia research. You can find out more by clicking here.

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