University of Georgia doctoral candidate Lisa Bartolomeo has been awarded an F31 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship is given to enhance the diversity of the health-related workforce and support the research training of predoctoral students from populations traditionally underrepresented in the biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research workforce.
The grant will support Bartolomeo in her research to identify the brain mechanisms underlying the symptom of avolition, or lack of motivation, in schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder that is the leading cause of functional disability in the United States. The disorder causes "positive symptoms" such as hallucinations and delusions, and negative symptoms characterized by reductions in motivation and emotional expressivity. Bartolomeo’s study tests the novel mechanistic hypothesis that avolition stems from a reduction in the positivity offset, or the tendency to experience a greater level of positive emotion than negative emotion in neutral contexts.
"The lack of motivation for goal-oriented activities called avolition is considered a core negative symptom of schizophrenia. Avolition is extremely debilitating and often keeps people with schizophrenia from living a full life," said Bartolomeo. "While we have effective treatments for positive symptoms, we don’t have any FDA-approved treatments for negative symptoms. This is an important channel in schizophrenia research that could really improve the quality of life for people who suffer from this condition."
The study will monitor avolition in people with schizophrenia from multiple perspectives. Schizophrenia is characterized by neuropathological abnormalities, and the use of fMRI could reveal neural circuits underlying avolition. Participants’ phenotypes will be analyzed and assessed via cell phone.
Digital phenotyping will happen in two ways. Active digital phenotyping will send surveys to the participants asking them about their emotional experiences and current activities. Passive digital phenotyping will monitor the participants’ speed of movement and how often they take trips outside of the home. The latter are objective measures of avolition that overcome some of the limitations of subjective measures like clinical interviews or self-report questionnaires.
Once the study has proven to have repeatable results, the focus would move to identifying points of intervention for treatment. In a neutral context, people with schizophrenia are less likely to feel positive emotions compared to healthy people. That positive emotion is what guides engagement in motivated or exploratory behavior.
"Whether the key is to help people with schizophrenia experience more positive emotions in these neutral contexts, or even training them to increase their positive emotions, there are many different approaches available," Bartolomeo said. "If we identify a neural mechanism through fMRI, maybe that can be translated into some sort of biological intervention."
Bartolomeo is being advised by Gregory Strauss, associate professor of psychology. Her co-sponsors include Lawrence Sweet, Gary R. Sperduto Professor in Clinical Psychology, Nathan Carter, associate professor of psychology, and Dean Sabatinelli, associate professor of psychology.
"Receiving this grant is such an honor. I wasn't expecting it, but with the support of my advisor and co-sponsors, we were able to do it," said Bartolomeo. "They rallied around me and gave me so much guidance, feedback, and support on my application. I feel very fortunate that they were willing to execute this grant with me and provide such valuable training opportunities."
Image: Lisa Bartolomeo, photo by Katie Cowart.