Researchers studying an animal model of schizophrenia have discovered that the animals can behave normal as adults if they underwent cognitive training in adolescence. The study is published in Neuron.

André Fenton of New York University said: “The brain can be loaded with all sorts of problems. What this work shows is that experience can overcome those disabilities.”

The teams finding was accidental – they originally focused on one of the fundamental problems in schizophrenia: the inability to sift through confusing or conflicting information and focus on what’s relevant.

Fenton explained:

“As you walk through the world, you might be focused on a phone conversation, but there are also kids in the park and cars and other distractions. These information streams are all competing for our brain to process them. That’s a really challenging situation for someone with schizophrenia.”

As a result, the team developed a cognitive control test required for that kind of focus. In the tests, rats had to learn how to avoid a foot shock while they were presented with conflicting information. Although, these test is easy for normal rats, those with brain lesions are only able to manage the task quickly until they become young adults – when signs of schizophrenia usually occur.

After some unexpected circumstances in the lab, the researchers then tested rats who underwent testing during adolescence again when they were adults. Surprisingly, the team found that the rats schizophrenic symptoms had somehow been averted.

The team believe that training during adolescence forged some vital neural connections, enabling the rats to compensate for the injury still present in their brains in adulthood. Training normalized the rats behaviors as well as the patterns of activity in their brains.

Fenton said:

“You may have a damaged brain, but the consequences of that damage might be overcome without changing the damage itself. You could target schizophrenia, but other disorders aren’t very different, take autism or depression, for example. And really, in this world of infinite distraction, couldn’t we all use a little more cognitive control?”

Written by Grace Rattue