Mental functions, disorders focus of psychological study

An MU professor is the lead author of a Science Magazine article on the topic.
Monday, March 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:42 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

An MU professor has played a large role in research that could help those suffering from schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Psychological sciences professor John Kerns is the lead author of an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Magazine. In the Feb. 13 article, Kerns and his colleagues explained and identified the parts of the brain that regulate cognitive control.

When the brain has to manage more than one action at the same time, or is faced with a situation different from set routine or highly practiced behavior, it is using cognitive control. According to a press release from the MU News Bureau, cognitive control can include driving a car while talking on a cell phone. Another example is crossing a busy street in London, where traffic comes from the right, after being trained your whole life to look to the left for traffic.

The discovery

Kerns and his colleagues found that two parts of the brain play a part in cognitive control, the anterior cingulated cortex, or ACC, and the prefrontal cortex, or PFC. The ACC detects conflict, then sends signals to the PFC, the part of the brain that reacts to the conflict, Kerns said.

“The ACC is like a 911 operator,” Kerns said. “It takes the call, then contacts the PFC, which would be like the police department or the fire department. The PFC actually deals with the conflict.”

While schizophrenics suffer from a lack of ACC activity, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder suffer from too much ACC activity.

How they did it

Kerns and his colleagues spent 18 months collecting data, then Kerns spent six months analyzing it. And the research could alter the treatment of schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The researchers tested 23 people for their reaction to conflict. The people were given a test called the Stroop color-naming task, in which they were given the name of a color, then asked to name the color of the ink the word was printed in. Most of the subjects found it difficult to name the correct color when the word differed from the color ink used — for example, if the word red was printed in green ink.

While they were taking the test, several MRIs were taken of their brain activity, said Andrew Stenger, a radiology professor at the University of Pittsburgh who set up the MRIs.

“We took hundreds of MRIs,” Stenger said. “Then we looked at the images and inferred what of the brain was activated when different tasks were done.”

Kerns said those who suffer from schizophrenia have an underactive ACC, which may play a role in their chaotic behavior.

“People with schizophrenia are like an orchestra without a conductor,” Kerns said.

Although much of the medication used to treat schizophrenia has been effective in treating other psychotic symptoms of the disorder, Kerns said it could also lower ACC activity. This may be a reason that the medication hasn’t been able to cure the disorder’s cognitive deficits, he said.

Knowing the workings of cognitive control could also let psychologists help schizophrenics come up with strategies to detect conflicts, even if their brain doesn’t do so automatically.

“OCD may come about because people’s brains are creating conflict that’s not there,” Kerns said.

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