Targeting medial prefrontal cortex brain networks implicated in hallucinations

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

 

Supervisor: Professor Jon Simons, Professor 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.

 

Student: Samantha Mitchell

Hi, I’m Samantha and I’m due to start my PhD in Psychology at the University of Cambridge in October 2021.

 

I recently completed an MSc in Neuroimaging: Methods and Applications at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC). My MSc dissertation examined the efficacy of combining two methods aimed at improving the quality of resting-state fMRI acquisitions of the human spinal cord. I presented a poster summarising the findings of this research project at the British Neuroscience Association 2021 Festival of Neuroscience.

 

Prior to this, I graduated from Cardiff University with a BSc in Psychology with a Professional Placement. I spent my placement year in Dublin working as a research assistant at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, conducting research using EEG and tDCS to investigate working memory and perceptual decision-making.

 

My research interests centre around schizophrenia and I am particularly interested in the neurocognitive basis of hallucinations. I am fascinated by how our brain generates our perception of the world and how this can differ from reality, especially in individuals who experience hallucinations. I am keen to take advantage of the ongoing technological advances in neuroimaging to further our understanding of schizophrenia and hallucinations and aid the development of alternative, non-invasive interventions.

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I am excited to start this project under the supervision of Professor Jon Simons and I would like to express my gratitude to Mental Health Research UK for making this opportunity possible.

 

Start Date: October 2021

 

Scientific Goal: Targeting medial prefrontal cortex brain networks implicated in hallucinations