Mad genes blur lines between psychology and neuroscience

American health providers may bicker about socialized medicine, but researchers who plunder the wealth of health data foreign states keep could easily quiet them down. Tyrone Cannon, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, is one of those researchers. Cannon and others take advantage of statistics in the databases of Scandinavian health systems to conduct comprehensive studies that would be otherwise nigh impossible.

Over the past 15 years Cannon's own work has helped to change the way schizophrenia is viewed.

His approach reflects technological advances in brain imaging and genetics that have radically altered the practice of clinical psychology, and may well change how scientists view a host of developmental disorders.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

The change has blurred the traditional distinction between neuroscience and psychology. "Psychology is an umbrella science in its modern form," said Cannon. "Brain approaches to behavior have become more prominent."

What Cannon found with the aid of technology and vast medical histories was a clear link between genetic make-up and behavior. For those who have schizophrenic genes, the brain's frontal lobe-the portion responsible for high-order cognitive processes-is especially susceptible to environmental factors, like a mother's viral infection during pregnancy. "We've shown that structurally the brains are compromised," Cannon said.

But in some cases there may be no clearly definable factor outside the presence of certain genes to explain the disorder. "The major part of why they are affected is genetic, about 80 percent," Cannon said. "Most everybody agrees that it is an appropriate way to view schizophrenia."

The research that Cannon and his team carry out consists of combining the results from brain imaging, DNA and computer-based testing to create profiles of the subjects and their propensity for full-blown schizophrenia. "They don't [necessarily] manifest the illness but they do manifest subtle tendencies that are revealed through testing. There's something else going on."

A student of classics as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, Cannon's studies in psychology began in earnest as a graduate student under schizophrenia pioneer Sarnoff Mednick at University of Southern California. He was attracted to Mednick's use of high-risk approach, a research method employing a larger number of research subjects than usual. "I knew a study like that offered a unique vantage point," Cannon explained. "You don't get access to that type of information routinely in clinical psychology."

Cannon makes no claim that genes predetermine all mental activities but he does assert that understanding to what extent they do is the necessary starting point. "If we know the brain is broken, let's go all the way to the end of the path to find out how-which ways give rise to disorders. We can find the ways genes determine behavior. It should make it easier to understand the role of social systems, how the environment affects [the brain]."

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Originally published on February 11, 1999