The Martinos Center’s Daphne Holt is among the distinguished investigators in the 2018 Class of MGH Research Scholars. She received the honor for her project “Altered neural mechanisms of personal space in schizophrenia: a novel biomarker of negative symptoms and treatment target.”
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness which causes many of those affected to lose their ability to understand social cues and to follow accepted norms in behavior, leading in many cases to profound social isolation. One of these abnormalities in social behavior is a tendency to maintain a greater than average amount of physical distance or “personal space” from other people during day-to-day social interactions.
Holt and her team have discovered a change in brain function in individuals with schizophrenia that may be responsible for this abnormality. In the project supported by the MGH Research Scholars award, they will use this knowledge to test a new technology-based treatment, which is based on evidence that practicing a new behavior can improve the function of the areas of the brain that are responsible for that behavior. The treatment approach they have developed takes advantage of recent advances in virtual reality technology to give patients an opportunity to practice new social behaviors in a safe and well-controlled virtual environment. Their goal is to reverse the changes in the brain believe to cause the debilitating social deficits experienced by many people with schizophrenia, and in doing so improve the individuals’ overall quality of life.
The MGH Research Scholars program was launched to provide forward-thinking researchers with the funding they need to take their work into new and uncharted territories. Scientists typically depend on funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to carry out their research but applying for the awards is a time-consuming process, and the NIH rarely funds projects that have little supporting data. The MGH Research Scholars program serves to provide support for exceptional researchers whose research is not readily funded by the NIH or other sources.
Read more about Holt’s work with the neuroscience of personal space here.