Patients with schizophrenia tend to have deficits in a range of learning and memory processes, as well as specific deficits in visual perception. All of these deficits are associated with poor functional outcomes, and current treatments do little to address them. One type of learning that might be important for outcomes, called perceptual learning, is potentially related to both types of deficits but has hardly been studied in schizophrenia. Perceptual learning refers to long-lasting changes in the way that particular sensory stimuli are perceived after they are encountered repeatedly, which are related to changes in the way those stimuli are processed in the brain. Perceptual learning deficits likely exist in schizophrenia, like other types of learning deficits and perceptual deficits, but this hypothesis has not yet been adequately tested. This proposal will evaluate perceptual learning in schizophrenia using behavioral and neural techniques adapted from cognitive neuroscience and vision research. Participants with schizophrenia and healthy controls will perform a perceptual learning task over the course of several days. At the beginning and end of the learning, we will measure the amount of brain activity evoked by stimuli encountered in the training task using electroencephalography (EEG). The first objective of the research will be to determine whether patients show less perceptual learning than controls. The second objective will be to determine whether patients show a different pattern of brain activity changes than controls. The third objective will be to examine how these behavioral and neural measures relate to each other. The research will also explore whether neural changes measured at the beginning of training predict learning outcomes later in training, which would suggest that those early changes are a neural marker of perceptual plasticity. Overall, this perceptual learning-based approach to studying schizophrenia has the potential to lead to new training-based treatments for perceptual abnormalities in the disease, new ways to measure the effects of treatments on perceptual plasticity in schizophrenia, and new insights into the neural basis of the disease.
Schizophrenia is a devastating mental illness that affects about 1 in 100 people in the United States and imposes a heavy disease burden. Patients with schizophrenia show specific abnormalities in visual perception that are related to their functioning in everyday life, yet little is understood about what causes such perceptual abnormalities or how to treat them. This proposal will use a new approach to study perceptual abnormalities and their neural correlates using perceptual learning techniques adapted from basic cognitive neuroscience to improve understanding of perceptual abnormalities in schizophrenia, which could lead to novel treatments and better patient outcomes in the future.
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