Social Work Professor Eack Receives $3 Million Grant to Test New Treatment for Schizophrenia

Issue Date: 
March 18, 2013

Researchers have come a long way in developing antipsychotic drugs that help control the delusions and hallucinations that can torment people with schizophrenia. Nevertheless, combining drug therapy with mental workouts to strengthen and stimulate brain function is now thought to be more successful than drug therapy alone in assisting schizophrenia patients with carving out better ways of living.

University of Pittsburgh Assistant Professor of Social Work Shaun M. Eack has received a $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to examine how Cognitive Enhancement Therapy (CET), a treatment intervention developed and piloted in the mid-1990s at Pitt, may benefit the brains of people with schizophrenia and whether the therapy could help patients recover to the point where they are able to return to school or hold down a job. 
“This project will be one of the first to study how much a nondrug intervention can help address core brain-based impairments in schizophrenia,” said Eack. “If successful, it will open a whole new avenue for the treatment of the disorder.”

For the study, Eack is now accepting patients with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or schizophreniform disorder who are between the ages of 18 and 35 and who have been ill for fewer than eight years. Interested family members and patients may call 412-586-9000 or 412-246-5957.
CET was developed by Gerard E. Hogarty, a social worker and renownedschizophrenia researcher who was a professor in Pitt’s School of Medicine for more than three decades, from 1974 until his death in 2006. The treatment requires patients to complete challenging cognitive exercises on computers, coupled with weekly social-cognitive group sessions, for 18 months. 

When participating in the cognitive exercises, patients are for example presented with pictures of many everyday objects on a computer screen. All pictures except for a few fade away, and the patient is asked to remember them. Gradually, participants have to remember more objects during shorter periods of time to strengthen their working-memory and memory-encoding abilities, two key cognitive functions that are disrupted in schizophrenia and keep patients from being able to succeed in areas like work.

In the study, Eack and a team of Pitt colleagues will administer CET to study participants in collaboration with researchers from Harvard University, who also are involved in the project. By providing computer-based neurocognitive training, Eack’s team expects to stimulate the areas of the brain involved in supporting attention, memory, and problem-solving abilities. The social-cognitive training is expected to stimulate the “social” areas of the brain.

“We view those with schizophrenia as having an arrested development in social abilities,” said Eack. “The social-cognitive group activities provide both education and social cognition exercises that are designed to jump-start this social development.”

The team will compare its findings with Enriched Supportive Therapy, an intervention that has an emotional rather than a cognitive focus. Another component of the study will look at CET as an early-intervention strategy, to prevent or at least reduce the trajectory of the disease by reaching people earlier in their lives, before the disease can take its toll on their brains.

Because of his work in this area, Eack was recently named a recipient of the University’s 2013 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award in the Junior Scholar category.

Eack’s Pitt colleagues include: Christina Newhill, professor of social work; Konasale Prasad, assistant professor of psychiatry; Mary Phillips, professor of psychiatry; Raymond Cho, assistant professor of psychiatry; and Srihari Bangalore, assistant professor of psychiatry.