A number of differences occur inside the brains of individuals living with mental disorders. Thanks to new research support from the National Institute of Mental Health, the University of Minnesota Medical School will lead an investigation into one of those differences—visual context perception.

Michael-Paul Schallmo, PhD, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, recently received a $740,000 grant to begin using vision as a tool in studying schizophrenia.

“We think that people with schizophrenia or psychosis see visual context differently,” Schallmo said. “What I mean by ‘differently’ is that there’s evidence that the effect of visual context is weaker. Those affected see something by itself and not within the bigger picture. They are seeing the tree and not the forest, so to speak. We think that by finding these differences, it will help us better understand how the brain is processing information differently in individuals with these symptoms.”

Schallmo says the visual system is well-studied in animal models, including non-human primates, cats, rats and mice. He plans to use this information as a foundation to study visual context perception in his subjects. 

“For me, I wanted to use visual as a tool to take what we knew from the animals and do studies in humans that could look at things in a different way,” he said. “And, we can use that knowledge to try to inform studies about humans and, hopefully, understand how the brain is functioning differently in someone with schizophrenia.”

Those differences have been tracked in previous research through studies using electroencephalography (EEG) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Schallmo’s work will build upon that research and use new technology to compare subjects with and without schizophrenia.

“We will be using magnetic resonance scanners to do a technique called, ‘Magnetic resonance spectroscopy,’” he said. “This will help us look at the subject’s chemical signals in the brain.

“If there’s something wrong in the brain where there’s some subtle change in the neural response that causes you not to use visual context information in the same way other people do, then that could seriously affect your ability to navigate and perceive the world. We do feel like that’s part of the problem in the way people with schizophrenia are processing information. It’s probably not the only problem, but we do think it is an issue.”

Schallmo’s team will also use EEG, along with conducting behavioral experiments, to see how the subjects’ behavioral responses align with the information tracked by EEG and spectroscopy. If these differences in visual context processing can be defined, Schallmo says it could lead to better treatment of schizophrenia.