Brain Imaging & Serendipity

Deanna Barch brings new hope to schizophrenia sufferers

Imagine using MRI scans to identify young people at risk for developing schizophrenia then administering medication or cognitive training to decrease the incidence or severity of the disease. Deanna Barch, PhD, director of the Silvio Conte Center for Neuroscience of Mental Disorders at Washington University, is focused on turning that vision into reality.

Barch, a nationally recognized expert in psychopathology and cognitive neuroscience, uses advanced brain-imaging techniques to identify biological differences in brain structure, function, and connectivity that are associated with cognitive impairment in schizophrenia and other mental disorders. She also investigates new approaches for enhancing cognitive functions such as learning, memory, and attention.

“Medications can be helpful for treating debilitating symptoms like hallucinations and delusions,” Barch says. “But problems with cognition also make it difficult for people with schizophrenia to function in the everyday world.” By identifying ways to improve cognition, Conte Center researchers hope to advance the quality of life for schizophrenia patients.

Barch became interested in schizophrenia while working as a case manager for the chronically mentally ill after earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northwestern University. Interacting with clients, many with schizophrenia, was a formative experience. She realized she could have a broader impact through research—discovering what causes schizophrenia and how to treat it.

A postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience further cemented her interests. Her advisor, who specialized in using computer algorithms to model brain behavior, was among the first to employ functional MRI to study brain activity in schizophrenia. “It was serendipity,” Barch says. “I got involved on the ground floor of the brain-imaging revolution.”

At Washington University, Barch is the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry and a professor of psychology and radiology. Her titles reflect the highly interdisciplinary nature of the neuroscience field. “The big breakthroughs in brain science are going to happen in a collaborative framework,” Barch says. “Washington University has embraced that integration. It’s one of our major strengths.”

To enhance educational opportunities for students interested in cognitive neuroscience, Barch helped establish the Cognitive, Computational, and Systems Neuroscience Pathway. The curriculum provides interdisciplinary training to graduate students in neuroscience, psychology, and biomedical engineering.

 It’s an exciting time to be studying the brain, says Barch, who believes her work and that of her colleagues will lead to big improvements in the treatment of mental illness. “My hope is that the research we do will help millions of people. We have a long way to go, but I’ve seen huge advances in my lifetime.”

“The big breakthroughs in brain science are going to happen in a collaborative framework. Washington University has embraced that integration.”

— Deanna Barch, the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry