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When the Brain Gets Out of Tune

By Jessa Forte NettingFebruary 6, 2005 6:00 AM


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The ghostly voices and disordered thought associated with schizophrenia may result from faulty brain-wave patterns—essentially a mind gone out of tune—according to a new study. In healthy people, brain cells link together at a single frequency of electrical activity, like tuning in to a radio station, says Robert McCarley of the VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard University. The schizophrenic brain turns the dial just off-station, he argues, failing to achieve the harmony needed for clear thinking.

McCarley and his colleague Kevin Spencer earlier showed that schizophrenics’ brain waves fall out of sync during the process of perception. Cell groups recognizing the color red and the sound of a siren, for instance, do not synchronize with each other to form the unified idea of a fire engine. Now the two researchers find that the brain waves modulating the decision to act are also out of whack. The waves do synchronize but at a frequency a little slower than that of normal, active thought. The moment of synchrony is probably when people form a mental image of the action they’re about to take, McCarley says.

Current antipsychotic medications do not target brain-wave patterns. New ones that do might enhance current treatments and help to tune out hallucinations.

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