"That was very impressive to me," says neurobiologist and co-author André Fenton at New York University. He adds that the results have optimistic implications for humans as well—presenting how the brain's ability to grow and adapt could overcome an intense biological insult with purely behavioral training.
As the co-authors detail in Neuron, their finding may be particularly encouraging to researchers and psychiatrists who study schizophrenia. In fact, this particular rat model was developed to explore a possible explanation of the disorder's developmental course—in which an early injury to the brain leads to symptoms expressed in maturity.
Duke University psychologist Richard Keefe, who was not involved in this study, explains that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that cognitive deficits in schizophrenia precede and may influence psychotic symptoms. "It is a bold notion that we will eventually prevent schizophrenia by combinations of pharmacological behavioral treatments that will help to 'teach' those at risk to avoid the cognitive processes that lead to psychosis, and how to fortify healthy cognitive processes," Keefe says. In addition, the work of Fenton and his colleagues complements ongoing research in schizophrenia that suggests intervening at the earliest signs—when symptoms such as social withdrawal become apparent—could alter the disorder's course.
Given the nebulous nature of schizophrenia and limitations of a rat model, however, a more immediate implication could be the importance of cognitive training in general. The findings make a case for teaching mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy. "Experience can change outcomes in really profound ways," Fenton says. "It's best not to do nothing with your brain."