Conference Coverage

Sense of self targeted by schizophrenia research



ORLANDO – New ways of assessing and measuring the way the sense of self becomes distorted in patients with schizophrenia patients and those at risk of developing the disease are deepening understanding of the disorder, an expert said at annual congress of the Schizophrenia International Research Society.

Sohee Park, PhD, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., said a unified and continuous sense of self is essential to leading a functional life. But this sense of self is a complex assemblage, made up of explicit experiences and actions, a more internal awareness of our own body, as well as a “social, narrative self” involving our social identity and history. This coherent and continuous sense of self is formulated and tied together by working memory and by our ability to form expectations or predictions about what might happen next, Dr. Park said.

In schizophrenia, the sense of self becomes fragmented as these predictions – on issues such as how sensory input is perceived – break down.

Dr. Park said a more comprehensive approach is needed in understanding this breakdown if clinicians can be expected to help people with schizophrenia.

“Connection between biological disorder and personal illness experience is not really well articulated in our field,” she said. “But it’s a connection we must make if we are to understand this condition and to develop treatments and interventions that make sense and are meaningful to the person who experiences psychosis.”

With her colleagues, Dr. Park has developed a way to better measure these bodily “self-disturbances” that patients with schizophrenia experience, and how they persist over time. B-BODI – the Benson et al. Body Disturbances Inventory – is a kind of catalog of pictures representing experiences of self-disturbance, such as someone having an out-of-body experience or a person who feels her body parts changing. The pictures come with written statements, and are designed to elicit more information from the patients about their experiences, such as how vivid, disturbing, and frequent they are.

Researchers have found that these experiences of body and self-disturbances are correlated with the positive symptoms of schizophrenia – such as hallucinations and confused thoughts – as well as with loneliness. But those experiences are not correlated with negative symptoms, such as loss of ability to feel pleasure.

B-BODI scores tend to be elevated in young people who are at high risk, so the tool could be used to help with earlier identification and treatment, and the use of pictures could help patients better convey what they’re experiencing, Dr. Park said.

“Self-disturbances are difficult to verbalize,” she said. B-BODI can help verbalize these strange experiences that are hard to describe – especially in those who have difficulty communicating.

She and her colleagues have found that those at risk of schizophrenia have a more “flexible body boundary” than do those not at risk. They performed an assessment of the degree to which subjects experienced the “Pinocchio illusion,” in which subjects are blindfolded, touch their noses, and have their biceps stimulated to create the sensation that their arm is moving away from the nose – which is interpreted as the nose growing longer. They found that subjects who scored higher on the Prodromal Questionnaire Brief – an assessment of schizophrenia risk – had higher Pinocchio illusion scores.

These abnormalities in self-perception all feed into the difficulty with which people with schizophrenia have in interacting with others. To address this difficulty, her group has developed a virtual reality training program to help patients with these interactions.

In the program, the user is asked to choose an avatar to interact with by looking at the face of the avatar for a few seconds. Once chosen, the face of the avatar is fully revealed and a conversation takes place. Then the participant receives feedback. Negative symptoms of schizophrenia were significantly reduced after participation after just 10 sessions, Dr. Park said. The program has received favorable reviews from patients – one described the avatars as “very friendly” – and holds promise for helping schizophrenia patients with social situations.

“Virtual reality,” she said, “offers the ideal rehearsal space.”

This work was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and NARSAD, formerly known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression. Dr. Park reported no financial disclosures.

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