Targeting medial prefrontal cortex brain networks implicated in hallucinations

John Grace Scholarship 2019: Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge

Supervisor: Dr Jon Simons, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience

Summary.  Hallucinations are a hallmark positive symptom of schizophrenia, in which people experience auditory or visual sensations that are not real.  Such phenomena may reflect difficulty discriminating information perceived in the external world from information that is imagined.  Previous structural and functional neuroimaging work in our laboratory has linked this discrimination difficulty with the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC).  Building on these findings, the proposed PhD project will involve the use of advanced structural and functional neuroimaging techniques to investigate specific mPFC brain morphology variations in people with schizophrenia.  Furthermore, as schizophrenia is likely associated with disrupted neural connectivity, it is essential to examine changes in connectivity between cortical regions involved in processing sensory representations and mPFC-supported decision-making processes.  Based on these experiments, the objective will be to target mPFC using real-time functional MRI neurofeedback.  In this technique, individuals in an MRI scanner learn to modulate neural activity within a particular brain area, using the visual feedback of real-time information relating to the strength of the haemodynamic BOLD response.  Building on pilot data already collected, we will explore the feasibility of boosting activity in the mPFC and improving the likelihood of successfully discriminating internally- from externally-generated information, which could reduce the incidence of misattributing imagined experiences as hallucinations.  This approach will have the potential to impact people with schizophrenia by informing the development of therapeutic approaches aimed at ameliorating these debilitating sensory and mnemonic distortions, improving everyday functioning for such individuals.