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Imaging the Brain

A visit with John Kerns, Assistant Professor, Psychology

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: prodromal FMRI schizophrenia

In an animated style, John Kerns explains what scholars know about basic brain functioning, much of which has until recently remained relatively speculative--simply because we can’t penetrate the inner regions of the brain. An assistant professor of psychology, Kerns describes how he hopes to someday remedy that problem by using brain-imaging technology, which has been around for only about ten years but could eventually prove to be one of “the most important technological developments” in the area of brain science.

Take one example. “Like an orchestra without a conductor,” people with schizophrenia suffer from a lack of cognitive control. Kerns seeks to understand the nature of cognitive control, particularly in the development of schizophrenic symptoms. He employs technology called FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)—a very powerful tool that records images of the brain in action. While the subject is asked a series of questions designed to stimulate different regions of the brain, the FMRI scans the brain every two seconds, producing thousands of detailed images for Kerns and his team of graduate students to analyze.

The average length of the prodromal period—from the time when symptoms first appear to the onset of full-blown schizophrenia—is about five years. If Kerns’ hypothesis is proven correct, it might well be possible for people at a high risk for the disease to prevent its full onset through early intervention. This strategy could go a long way toward viable treatment and prevention—an exciting proposition for anyone who has felt the devastating impact of schizophrenia on the lives of individuals and families.