When Psychology Professor Matthew Kurtz created and proposed a research study comparing two treatment methods for schizophrenia to the National Institutes of Mental Health in 2014, the study was not funded, much to his disappointment. But this was not the end of the road for Kurtz’s idea. After taking time to write a book and teach, Kurtz revisited the study two years ago to rework his grant proposal, and finally received the response he had been hoping for.

This January, the National Institute of Mental Health awarded Kurtz and Quantitative Analysis Center Professor of the Practice Jennifer Rose a $492,410 Academic Research Enhancement Award to cover the costs of their study, which is titled “Comparing Cognitive Remediation Approaches for Schizophrenia.”

Kurtz has spent most of his career thinking about schizophrenia: the population that the mental illness affects, how it affects them, and most importantly, how it can be treated. He said his inspiration for the study came from a desire to compare two approaches to the treatment of schizophrenia that are commonly practiced in the field of psychology. 

“Basically, people with chronic schizophrenia have persistent difficulties in attention, remembering things, solving problems in everyday life,” Kurtz said. “We now have two relatively well studied approaches to helping people manage or address these difficulties in paying attention, remembering things, and problem solving. And yet these two approaches, in the scientific literature, have never been compared.”

The first approach that Kurtz mentioned involves what he calls “brain training.” Subjects practice exercises in attention and memory, such as clicking on a yellow square that flashes on a computer screen as quickly as possible, or tracking the square with the mouse. As participants practice and improve, they move through a series of increasingly challenging exercises, training their brains to focus and remember better. 

The second approach centers on developing strategies to get around difficulties in attention, such as using acronyms to remember names and places, or practicing visualization. This approach to treatment gives people with a schizophrenia diagnosis the tools that they need to compensate for the difficulties they may experience on a day-to-day basis. 

Kurtz and Rose’s “Comparing Cognitive Remediation Approaches for Schizophrenia” will look for indicators that one course of treatment is more successful than the other.

“I think our hope is that we may be able to find an intervention that is more effective than another,” Kurtz said. “We also may have some clues as to which intervention is more helpful for which participants.” 

The study is still in its early phases. Participants have recently been enrolled and gone through their initial assessments, with treatment scheduled to start in the next few days. While Kurtz will play more of a supervisory role in organizing and conducting the study, Rose will be directly involved in the quantitative aspect of the research. 

“Professor Rose is a biostatistician by training, so she’s involved in randomization strategy of getting participants into groups; she will be involved in applying advanced statistical methods to understanding the meaning of our results,” Kurtz said.

Though the study is running smoothly so far, it certainly comes with its unique challenges. One difficulty that Kurtz noted is the fact that treatment will be taking place at two sites: the Institute of Living in Hartford and River Valley Services in Middletown. With both clinicians and Wesleyan students involved in conducting assessments and the intervention, Kurtz said that he has spent most of his time and energy thus far training people and making sure everyone knows what they need to be doing. 

However challenging it may be to include students alongside professionals at the two locations, Kurtz said he feels that the study provides a unique opportunity for both parties to work together effectively. 

“I think the grant is going to give us the opportunity to increase ties between Wes and mental health facilities,” Kurtz. “I think that’s a real strength.”

Kurtz added that for many students, involvement in the study is not just about gaining research experience or engaging in applied learning.

“It gives Wesleyan students another way of addressing social inequities, and those social inequities are around the idea of the severely psychiatrically ill, who are a chronically underserved population in the United States,” Kurtz explained. “That’s certainly part of why I got into this field, and I suspect that’s what motivates some of the students who work in the lab.”

Emma Smith can be reached at elsmith@wesleyan.edu.

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