RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today in Your Health, schizophrenia - even though it is a mental illness that affects some 3 million Americans, treatments are still much the same as they were a generation ago. Now some scientists think they may have been focusing on the wrong aspects of this disease. Two weeks ago on this program, we looked at how that is leading to new treatments for those in the early stages of the illness. Today, we explore new therapies for those who are further along. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.
AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Reality, if you think about it, is a kind of social contract. You and I might be strangers, but we agree, at least at a really basic level, on what's real. So when you talk to someone who isn't signed on to that same contract, it can be kind of unsettling.
What do the gloves do?
I'm asking a guy named George about the thin, plastic hospital gloves he was wearing when we met.
GEORGE: Gloves - so that cosmic dust doesn't get on my hands.
STANDEN: I met George and his cosmic dust at a mental health clinic in San Francisco's Tenderloin district - the type of place where men wearing unseasonable winter parkas loiter around the entrance, smoking cigarettes. The clinic let me come in and talk to its clients on the condition that NPR doesn't use their last names. Staff there says part of looking out for their patients' best interest is protecting their privacy. George was upstairs in a computer room. He's in his 50s, with neatly combed hair and faded tattoos on his forearms. And when I spoke, he told me he saw flashes of light around my mouth.
GEORGE: It looks like yellow with light pinkish color.
STANDEN: Have you always seen those?
GEORGE: Yes, have you? Would you like to?
STANDEN: I don't know. Is it a good thing?
GEORGE: Yes, you can understand life in general better.
STANDEN: You feel like you understand things other people don't?
GEORGE: Of course. It makes you superior.
STANDEN: I'm not proud of it, but this conversation made me uncomfortable. It was something about the particular way that Georgia drifted back and forth between delusions and reality. And that's partly why when antipsychotic drugs were invented in the 1960s, they seemed revolutionary.
SOPHIA VINOGRADOV: Remember, up until that point, we had wrapping them in wet towels...
STANDEN: This is Sophia Vinogradov, a researcher and psychiatrist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.
VINOGRADOV: ...Locking them in a padded cell, frontal lobotomies if the behavior was really out of control. When antipsychotic medications did evolve and they did reduce psychotic symptoms, it was like the heavens had opened.
STANDEN: Antipsychotic drugs were good at tamping down the strange beliefs and visions. And to be clear, for a lot of people, this is a lifesaver. But for others, the drugs don't work that well. They can have bad side effects, like weight gain or tremors. Some people may not want to get rid of these beliefs. And to Vinogradov and other researchers who study the disease today, the antipsychotic drugs aren't really getting at the disease itself. They're just treating one aspect of it.
VINOGRADOV: We haven't been addressing these underlying cognitive dysfunctions, which are really at the heart of what impede people's ability to have a fulfilling and successful life.
STANDEN: This is important, but it's a little bit complicated. So let's back up. Schizophrenia, the word, means, literally, split mind. And traditionally, that's how people have thought of schizophrenia - as a disease defined by weird ideas, say, for example, believing in cosmic dust. But this public perception of schizophrenia hasn't kept up with the science. When you talk to researchers today, they are less interested in trying to stop the delusions, less focused on that whole side of the disease. If you really want to understand schizophrenia, they say look instead to how the disease begins.
DANIEL MATHALON: Kids seem to be growing up OK, but somewhere in the - typically in the teenage years, you start to see a decline in their functioning.
STANDEN: This is Daniel Mathalon. He studies brain development and schizophrenia at the University of California, San Francisco.
MATHALON: They were doing better in school, and now they're doing worse in school. They may have had friends when they were younger, but they're starting to be more socially isolated.
STANDEN: This stage in life - the early 20s - is supposed to be a time when the intellect flourishes. But for these teenagers who develop schizophrenia, the opposite happens.
MATHALON: Patients may sometimes say that they used to be able to read books. Now they can't read books. They can't sustain their focus.
STANDEN: Schizophrenia at its core, say Mathalon and others, is a decline in basic brain functioning. Abilities like memory, basic motor skills, start to falter - almost like a dementia that hits young people. Then there's what scientists call salience - roughly, something that matters. To a person without schizophrenia, a distant car alarm is not salient. It can be ignored. But, says Sophia Vinogradov, many people with schizophrenia can't do that.
VINOGRADOV: They are walking down the street, trying to have a conversation, and their brain is being flooded with the sound of the door slamming, the airplane going overhead. And the brain is starting to process all of that information as if it has meaning and is something the brain needs to pay attention to and needs to do something about.
STANDEN: And maybe - though this is just a theory- this onslaught of extra data becomes raw material for hallucinations.
VINOGRADOV: And as the brain takes in all this information, which really is not salient, but it thinks is salient, it tries to make sense of it. And there's some evidence to suggest that that's what gives rise to delusional ideas, to paranoia, to hallucinatory activity and so forth.
STANDEN: Considered this way, schizophrenia sounds like a disease in which the stream of consciousness has swollen into a tsunami. And you can hear this, I think, when you talk to Paul, another guy I met at the clinic. Paul is an Asian man in his 50s who looked quizzically at my microphone. And I'll warn you, he's really hard to understand.
PAUL: Oh, you're listening. Punjab, Punjab. I never been to India, but I saw books, pictures of it, books.
STANDEN: Everything I say to Paul, or he says to me, triggers a jumble of tangentially related ideas - Punjab leads to India leads to books leads to his brother Kenny...
PAUL: My brother Kenny, he was a little misunderstood (laughter). Brother Kenny was misunderstood, just like another brother (laughter).
STANDEN: So what if you could teach someone like Paul to tune out all the distractions in his head - to have a conversation? This is the kind of improvement that researchers in schizophrenia are after these days. They're less focused on making delusions go away. They want to help people with schizophrenia simply think better. One way to do this might be with a drug, a drug designed to improve memory and basic brain performance. Pharmaceutical companies have been working on this, but without much success. So clinicians are increasingly prescribing very low-tech interventions, like fish oil pills and exercise, treatments that seem to be good for the brain. And at this clinic where I met Paul and George, a study is taking place to see whether the brain can be, essentially, re-taught using computer games.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's start with this one when you're ready.
STANDEN: Researchers tend to avoid the term video games. This is not "MineCraft."
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The boy to the school.
STANDEN: Still, George gets a kick out of it as he drags the images across the screen with his mouse.
GEORGE: He's in school, cuttin', smokin' cigarettes in the back (laughter).
STANDEN: The idea here is to train George to focus on simple instructions.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Move the doctor to the bank.
GEORGE: OK, to the bank.
STANDEN: Another exercise repeats a word and asks the user to click on the emotion that best describes how that word was said.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Again? Again?
STANDEN: The right answer here is happy. A woman sitting next to George gets it wrong. The idea here isn't that that video games would replace antipsychotic drugs, at least not for everyone. Vinogradov says there are many people whose voices or delusions are so destructive and so violent that they need to be turned off. Meds are still the best way to do that. But for another group of people, these kinds of approaches might let doctors focus on a different set of questions.
VINOGRADOV: Is this person able to have the kind of life they want? Are they able to have friends, to have people who they can love, who can love them back? Are they able to keep food and shelter?
STANDEN: Voices and beliefs may not be what's getting in the way of that. Simpler problems, like memory and focus, might be much more important. The idea is to start addressing those kinds of goals and hope other improvements follow suit. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen.
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