Turning the Curse into a Blessing: Using Mindfulness to Reduce Schizophrenia Vulnerability in Psychosis-Prone Individuals

The Fieldrose Charitable Trust PhD Scholarship 2017: Psychology Department, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, Kings College London

Supervisor: Professor Paul Chadwick

Summary: 

We are all confronted with an overwhelming array of sensory stimuli and are required to filter out what is most useful and salient, and discard unwanted information. Leading theorists have argued that schizophrenia may result in part from an inability to filter information. Yet, having a more open information processing style (i.e. less filtering) has also been linked to creativity and originality of thought, which is both an aesthetic and pragmatic blessing for an individual and society. Indeed, schizophrenia and creativity have been linked by previous research. Antipsychotic medication, the first line of psychosis prevention and treatment, is known to dampen down more open processing in people either with or vulnerable to schizophrenia, potentially reducing conditions promoting creativity in these individuals. Our research on expert meditators showed that mindfulness practice is associated with lower suspiciousness and paranoia (the strongest predictors of subsequent schizophrenia) in the presence of decreased filtering. We will examine if mindfulness training in psychosis-prone individuals reduces schizophrenia vulnerability (suspiciousness/paranoia), whilst preserving decreased filtering thought to underlie heightened creativity.

Research Student:
Heather McDonald

I am a recent graduate of MSc Health Psychology at Northumbria University and am due to start my PhD in October 2017, supervised by Professor

Paul Chadwick and Dr. Elena Antonova in the IOPPN of KCL. I am committed to the field of psychology and am greatly interested in research of clinical relevance. I have particular interest in mindfulness, creativity, neuroimaging and the role of neurotransmitters in psychology.

For my undergraduate BSc project in 2015 at Northumbria University, I investigated creative ability in relation to neurotransmitters, using ocular indices of neurotransmitter activity. This research was inspired by the early notion that disinhibited thinking style can drive creative ability in populations with a similar cognitive profile as schizophrenia patients. Results supported evidence suggestive of a link between dopamine, serotonin and creativity.

My 2016 MSc research thesis looked at using mindfulness in order to improve subjective pain through improved attentional control, using neuroimaging. Mindfulness meditation was seen to increase attentional performance, inhibition (specifically, to distraction) and linked in to an improvement in subjective pain. There was also evidence of a link to a role of dopamine activity in this process, which mindfulness meditation may effect.

Outside of studying and research I have spent time teaching undergraduate psychology students, assisting in neuroimaging research at Northumbria University and volunteering within vocational rehabilitation for individuals with acquired brain injuries.

I am very excited about starting the current project at KCL. This great research opportunity has been awarded by Mental Health Research UK; The Fieldrose Charitable Trust PhD Scholarship. 

Start Date: September 2017

Scientific goal: 

To investigate the efficacy of mindfulness-based intervention in psychosis-prone individuals (high positive schizotypy) in reducing the risk factors for schizophrenia (suspiciousness/paranoia), whilst preserving the conditions promoting creativity.

Progress Report 2017-18

We are very grateful to MHRUK and the Fieldrose Charitable Trust for making this research possible.

This project aims to apply a Mindfulness-Based Intervention (MBI) in individuals with high positive schizotypy to reduce suspiciousness and paranoia – an aspect of positive schizotypy thought to be most strongly related to risk of psychosis - whilst maintaining attenuated sensory information filtering thought to support heightened creativity in these individuals.

A lot of progress has been made during this first year of the PhD. The project was firstly reviewed by service users through King’s Biomedical Research Centre Service User Advisory Group. Very positive feedback was received on the project’s aims & objectives, design and recruitment materials and strategy. The project outline was then further reviewed by service users through the King’s Feasibility and Acceptability Support Team for Researchers (FAST-R), who seek to ensure research is respectful and relevant to the priorities of individuals with mental health problems. The positive feedback from this service is reflected in the final protocol and participant materials, and all three studies have gained Ethical approval.

The first 2 studies are currently well underway. The first study investigates the link between positive schizotypy, dispositional mindfulness and subjective experience of creativity. One hundred and seventeen participants have been recruited for this study so far, having been assessed on the key variables through an online survey. Preliminary results are promising and encouraging for the upcoming studies. I presented these preliminary results at the Mind Wandering and Mindfulness Conference at Northumbria University in June 2018.

The second study investigates the interrelationship between high positive schizotypy, creativity and sensory information filtering. Lab-based creativity measures and the paradigm designed to assess sensory information filtering have been piloted. I am now recruiting a sub-sample of participants who completed the online survey from Study 1. Additionally, I am working on a systematic literature review of the field of schizotypy and creativity.

I have engaged in a variety of relevant training and events to enrich the PhD, such as mindfulness and statistics workshops. I have also gained funding to attend and present the preliminary findings from Study 1 at the annual Mind and Life European Summer Research Institute. This year’s theme is very relevant to the project and it will be a fantastic opportunity to share ideas with experienced researchers of contemplative science, which could further inform and shape Study 3 (MBI).

Future Plans:

The plan for the following year is to complete the systematic review and continue data collection for the studies currently running, with the next round of recruitment commencing this Autumn. The protocol for Study 3 - using a Mindfulness-Based Intervention to reduce suspiciousness and paranoia in individuals high in positive schizotypy - will be finalised and recruitment for this can commence in my second year. I will also continue to attend useful training and plan to maintain personal engagement with mindfulness.