What gets a researcher up and away?

When does creativity turn to delusions? We speak with Dr Phil Corlett to uncover his passion for the brain!
20 May 2013

Interview with 

Dr Phil Corlett, Yale School of Medicine


Phil -   Hi.  I'm a Cognitive Neuroscientist and I'm fascinated by the tricks that the brain pulls to help it deal with all of the information coming in from the world, tricks that we can see in action when we observe optical illusions like the rotating hollow mask.  The face on the mask rotates and the back end of the hollow mask always seems to point outwards because in our experience, faces point out.  These illusion on the lines, how our expectations and our beliefs scope how we see the world. 

Sometimes these tricks fail and when they do, people perceive the world in a A Hollow mask illusion of Swedish tennis player Björn Borgvery different way.  I'm talking here about patients with psychotic illnesses like Schizophrenia.  These patients seem less able to use their past experiences to appropriately constrain what's happening to them currently.  A little bit of this can help with creativity, but too much can lead to experiences in beliefs, what we call hallucinations and delusions that aren't shared by other people and then are bizarre, intrusive, and distressing.  For example, sometimes patients' brains might predict sounds when there aren't any, manifest those auditory hallucinations. 

Other times, their brain might fail to use predictions to screen out the things that the rest of the world would ignore, imbuing those things with a meaning and a significance that patients form delusions in order to explain. 

I recently received the International Mental Health Research Organisation Rising Star Award.  This organisation funds new research into the causes, treatments, and prevention of mental illness, and the award will help fund a pilot project on the role of potassium channels in how predictions are specified in the brain.  Nerve cell membrane excitability is one mechanism through which predictions might be instantiated in the brain and we think that potassium channels might regulate that excitability. 

We're going to try to find out whether altering potassium channel function in the brain using a drug called retigabine might help patients with psychosis make better predictions about their world.  We hope that this work will inspire new treatments for psychotic illness, treatments that are grounded in cognitive neuroscience. 

I'm a Neuroscientist because I'm interested in how the brain forms beliefs, what happens when that belief formation mechanism goes array, and what we might do to try to help.


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