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Pitt to apply $3.1M to schizophrenia study

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

University of Pittsburgh researchers will use a $3.1 million grant to push for better understanding and treatment of schizophrenia, as advocates urge people to pay attention to mental illness after several mass shootings.

Pitt officials on Monday said Shaun M. Eack, an assistant professor of social work, will oversee the study on treating schizophrenia with cognitive enhancement therapy, paid for with the National Institutes of Mental Health money. The therapy pioneered at Pitt nearly 20 years ago utilizes challenging computer exercises to stimulate memory and weekly group sessions to encourage social development.

Researchers hope such treatment will enable people with schizophrenia to recover enough to return to work or school.

“This project will be one of the first to study how much a non-drug intervention can help address core brain-based impairments in schizophrenia,” Eack said. “If successful, it will open a whole new avenue for the treatment of the disorder.”

The 18-month study will enroll people ages 18-35 with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or schizophreniform disorder who have been ill for fewer than eight years.

The Pitt researchers will collaborate with a team from Harvard University to administer therapies and look at the impact of stimulating areas of the brain that affect attention, memory and problem-solving abilities.

Mental health advocates and lawmakers are debating the relationship between mental illness and gun violence after December's shooting of 26 students and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and other mass shootings.

Though some urge broad restrictions on access to guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines, gun rights advocates say lawmakers instead should ban people with mental illness from owning guns.

Pennsylvania law bars gun ownership for people who have been judged incompetent or involuntarily committed for mental health treatment. Across the country, 44 states place varying restrictions on gun ownership for people with a history of certain mental illnesses.

Shira Goodman, director of CeaseFirePA, said an emphasis on mental health treatment and research is encouraging as people discuss how to curb gun violence.

“Clearly, part of the problem is how much funding has been cut from mental health and people not getting the services they need,” Goodman said. “I would look at putting money in research as a helpful development.”

Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said cognitive enhancement therapy is “a creative, positive, recovery-oriented intervention” that, although promising, needs further study.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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