Decoding funny faces to detect disease

Feb 04, 2009
Samples of the "disturbed" and normal faces used in Prof. Hendler's research to diagnose disease. Credit: AFTAU

Like Russell Crowe's character in A Beautiful Mind, life is often difficult for the 2.4 million Americans with schizophrenia. A late or incorrect diagnosis and the lack of effective treatment options can destroy a sufferer's quality of life.

Schizophrenia usually emerges between the ages of 18 and 30, but diagnosis before the disease manifests could be the key to developing more successful treatments, says Prof. Talma Hendler, of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology.

Until now, detecting mental illness before symptoms appear has been nearly impossible. Building on her groundbreaking work on facial recognition and brain imaging, Prof. Hendler is hoping to make early diagnosis a reality by identifying the physical markers of mental illness — particularly schizophrenia — inside the brain.

"With better diagnosis, plus earlier and more disease-specific treatment, we can make a real difference in the lives of these patients," Prof. Hendler says.

Mapping The Brain

For years, the mechanism behind the abnormal social behavior that characterizes many schizophrenic patients has been a mystery. To study the physical manifestation of schizophrenia, Prof. Hendler used brain imaging to illustrate differences between the brain activity of schizophrenic patients and healthy adults. Her work is part of the Functional Human Brain Mapping project at Tel Aviv University, Prof. Hendler's findings, published recently in the journal Human Brain Mapping, showed that when presented with photographs of emotional faces with "bizarre" characteristics, the brains of schizophrenic patients were much less reactive than established norms.

In her previous research published in the journal Neuron, when shown a bizarre "funny face", healthy minds respond with selective activity within the brain, sounding the alarm that there is something disturbing about the image. Prof Hendler then posited that although this selective response is found in visual areas, it has distributed effects in the brain; "The visual areas of the brain are highly connected to other areas, including the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, but in schizophrenic patients, there is a diminished connection between the various parts, leading to disturbed integration of information — and thus to distorted experiences," she says.

Developing Early Screening Processes and Better Treatments

"Recognizing facial emotions is a very early process, so young children could be screened for a predisposition to mental disease by measuring their brain connectivity while detecting emotional cues," Prof. Hendler explains. An objective early marker of the disease would be especially useful for those already considered high risk, such as children with an immediate family member with the disease. With early diagnosis to guide individually tailored treatment, it may be possible to reduce the effect of the disease and, in some cases, even prevent its outbreak.

By identifying the physical characteristics of a mental disorder, Prof. Hendler is also paving the way for new types of treatment. "Current drugs treat the abnormal behavior, not the brain disorder that is causing the behavior," she says, "We want to be able to develop more specific treatments based on objective brain markers, which are the actual characteristics of the disease."

Prof. Hendler's work has been published in leading journals in the field of cognitive neuroscience such as the Journal of Neuroscience and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Neuroimage and Neuron. She is currently also working on using brain imaging to characterize and identify predispositions for post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers.

Future work with "funny faces" will also look at basic human emotions such as shame, envy and guilt. Having a neural marker for these emotions might give clinicians an early-detection tool to spot abnormalities in social interactions. Problems in socializing are a hallmark of schizophrenia.

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Explore further: Patients with rare lung disease face agonizing treatment dilemma

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Does sex matter? It may when evaluating mental status

Nov 18, 2010

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that differs between the sexes in terms of age at onset, symptomatology, response to medication, and structural brain abnormalities. Now, a new study from the University of Montreal shows ...

Unlocking mysteries of the brain with PET

Oct 30, 2009

Inflammatory response of brain cells—as indicated by a molecular imaging technique—could tell researchers more about why certain neurologic disorders, such as migraine headaches and psychosis in schizophrenic patients, ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover target for treating dengue fever

11 hours ago

Two recent papers by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues may help scientists develop treatments or vaccines for Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and other ...

Tracking flu levels with Wikipedia

11 hours ago

Can monitoring Wikipedia hits show how many people have the flu? Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital, USA, have developed a method of estimating levels of influenza-like illness in the American population by analysing ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Venture investments jump to $9.5B in 1Q

Funding for U.S. startup companies soared 57 percent in the first quarter to a level not seen since 2001, as venture capitalists piled more money into an increasing number of deals, according to a report due out Friday.

White House updating online privacy policy

A new Obama administration privacy policy out Friday explains how the government will gather the user data of online visitors to WhiteHouse.gov, mobile apps and social media sites. It also clarifies that ...