Albert Powers, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, and Medical Director and Associate Director of the Yale PRIME Psychosis Risk Research Clinic, has received the Carol and Gene Ludwig Award for Early Career Research from the Carol and Gene Ludwig Family Foundation.
Powers’ grant, “Capturing The Computational Signatures of Psychotic Symptoms As They Develop,” proposes a partnership with colleagues from Yale Pediatrics and Yale’s Generations Project to identify people whose genes put them at high risk for developing psychosis and study them both before and after they develop symptoms.
“Understanding pathogenesis provides a roadmap for researchers to understand the different pathways individuals may take toward development of a given disease. And this matters for patients. Prevention, detection, and treatment of psychiatric illness depends on an accurate and individualized mapping between observed symptoms, latent mental states, and distal causes,” Powers said. “We have shown that some of this mapping can be done using the approaches of computational psychiatry. These provide us with mathematical frameworks for understanding the typical functioning of perceptual and cognitive systems and how specific aberrations in these systems may lead to the development of specific psychiatric symptoms.”
Recent work in Powers’ lab has begun to uncover abnormalities in information processing that may directly connect to psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations. As a Ludwig Investigator, Powers will use a combination of cutting-edge computational modeling of behavior on perceptual tasks, neuroimaging, and electrophysiology to catch the signatures of hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms as they develop from typical processing. “We plan to collect a host of measures that will allow us to understand how their brains process information over time and predict both risk and resilience to development of psychotic symptoms,” Powers said.
The Carol and Gene Ludwig Family Foundation invests in research talent poised to make the next major discoveries in neuroscience related to neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s disease. This new funding will allow Dr. Powers and team to understand how risk factors translate to actual changes in information processing and the development of psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. They will also plan to follow people who are at risk and who have not yet developed symptoms in order to determine what changes occur and when, before those symptoms actually develop.
“We’ve shown that people with hallucinations use their expectations more than others do during perception. If we could turn back time to before they developed symptoms, we might be able to see if this way of perceiving the world predicted the onset of symptoms. Even more exciting, we might see that there are lots of different ways to arrive at that same state, implying different treatments and prevention strategies for different people,” Powers said.
“Unfortunately, it's very difficult to study people before they develop any symptoms at all. Attempts to do that have mostly focused on following large cohorts from the general population over time, which is extremely expensive and likely to only yield a small number of people who actually develop symptoms. Because of this grant, for the first time ever, we will be able to observe what changes in people’s brains as the symptoms of psychosis actually arise.”