Home Research Program
Research Program

Schizophrenia is one of the most prevalent psychiatric disorders with a delineated life time prevalence of 1%, which has been reported to be independent of cultural effects. Usually, the onset of the illness as defined by manifest symptoms is preceded by an extended prodromal period in late adolescence or early adulthood. The majority of patients exhibit lifelong deficits. Consequences of the disorder are the abandonment of schooling, the incapacity to work, deprivation of social relations and extensive limitations regarding quality of life and hence a considerable loss of “quality-of-life-adjusted” years as stated by the WHO (Mathers & Loncar, 2006). The prevalence rate for schizophrenia is approximately 1% of the population over the age of 18 or, in other words, at any one time as many as 51 million people worldwide suffer from schizophrenia. Rates of schizophrenia are generally similar in the different countries — about 0.5 to 1 percent of the population (variations are mostly due to differing measuring standards in many countries, etc.). The number of people who will be diagnosed as having schizophrenia in a year is about one in 4,000. About 1.5 million people will be diagnosed with schizophrenia this year, worldwide.

Some years after Bleuler had described autism as one core deficit of schizophrenia, Kanner (1943) and Asperger (1944) borrowed Bleuler’s term to describe a group of children with severe deficits in social communication and social interaction. The most striking clinical features are their pervasive lack of interest in other people, a pronounced resistance to change in their environment and routines, stereotypic behaviors and delayed language development. This phenomenological definition of autism remained virtually the same as that initially formulated by Kanner (1943). According to earlier epidemiological studies, between 2 to 5 children in 10,000 are affected (Fombonne, 1999). Recent studies suggest an even higher prevalence of up to 38,9 children are affected with childhood autism in a population of 10,000 (narrow definition of autism 24,8 per 10,000) and 77,2 in 10,000 for other autism spectrum disorders (resulting in 116,1 per 10,000 = approx. 1% of all children) (Baird et al., 2006). However, the interpretation of this remarkable increase has to be seen in the light of revised classifications and evolving diagnostic standards.

Dysfunctional emotion processing has been investigated as a core symptom in schizophrenia and autism by applying divergent neuroimaging tools (Pinkham et al., 2007a, b; Marwick and Hall, 2008; Kohler and Martin, 2006; Schneider et al., 2007, 2006, 1997, 1998, 1995, Gur et al., 2007a, b, 2006) and also within the projects during the first funding period of the International Research Training Group. For this aim, facial expressions for brain imaging (FEBA) were used as a joint paradigm for most of the studies whenever feasible. Further aims were to gain information concerning the brain mechanisms of (i) emotion and its interaction with cognitive functions, such as memory and language, and (ii) the role of dysfunctional systems in schizophrenia and autism, including developmental aspects. This was accomplished by means of advanced brain imaging techniques, including structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI and fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetoencephalography (MEG), computational modeling, neurotransmitter receptor distribution and microstructural, architectonic brain mapping. The new research program will entail several modifications to this program while keeping the most relevant columns on which the IRTG is based, schizophrenia, autism, emotion and brain imaging.

Neuroimaging research in this domain has revealed that dysfunctions in these disorders are due to yet ill defined disturbances in brain networks. The potential of neuroimaging for prevention, early diagnoses and prediction also poses major challenges for future research. The IRTG aims at contributing to clinical, as well as methodological, advances in the field which are intrinsically tied to each other.

Hence, the IRTG examines a complex research problem that requires expertise of a multidisciplinary group of investigators applying diverse methodologies and skills to elucidate the mechanisms that may underlie the pathophysiology of schizophrenia and autism. The participating researchers provide the necessary methodological and clinical expertise and highest proficiency in the fields of medicine, psychology, biology, computer science and physics to accomplish this aim. They successfully demonstrated their ability to cooperate internationally in the first funding period and in various other research endeavors.