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Is Early Cognitive Training Key to Minimizing Schizophrenia Impact?

24 August 2012. Training in adolescence can offset cognitive deficits in adulthood in a proposed rat model of schizophrenia, reports a study published August 22 in Neuron. Studying rats given ventral hippocampal lesions early in life, researchers led by André Fenton of New York University found that training these rats as adolescents to pay attention to certain cues while ignoring others prevented impairments observed in similar tasks when they were adults. The study casts adolescence as a stage of neurodevelopment when important and lasting changes can be made to promote cognition in adulthood.

Based on these data, the researchers suggest that prophylactic cognitive training in people at risk for schizophrenia, before they’ve had their first psychotic episode, may avoid some of the mental pitfalls of the disorder. Currently, cognitive training is given to people after they’ve become ill, and researchers are still hashing out the merits of the various methods, like cognitive behavioral therapy (see SRF related news story) and cognitive remediation (see SRF Webinar). Some have suggested that earlier training in adolescence may benefit cognitive function later in life, particularly for those skills that would have already matured prior to disease onset (see SRF related news story).

The new study uses the neonatal ventral hippocampus lesion (NVHL) model of schizophrenia, in which lesions given the first week of life give rise to schizophrenia-related abnormalities in adulthood, including enhanced dopamine-dependent responses, disrupted prepulse inhibition, and impaired social behavior, learning, and memory (Lipska, 2004). Though people with schizophrenia do not carry hippocampal lesions dating back to when they were infants, hippocampal abnormalities have been consistently found (Tamminga et al., 2010), and the NVHL model explores the possibility that early problems there could derail development throughout the brain. Like the delayed onset of schizophrenia, the abnormalities in NVHL rats do not emerge until later in life, thus providing a venue for researchers to study how delayed consequences might arise from early abnormalities.

Shock zone
First author Heekyung Lee and colleagues studied the ability of NVHL rats to learn to avoid a region of the test arena that delivered a mild (<0.4 mA) foot shock. The shock zone was defined in terms of the surrounding room, which had visual cues as a reference. The animals had to learn to ignore cues inside the circular arena, which slowly rotated, and pay attention to the room cues in order to avoid the shock zone.

Control adult rats quickly figured this out by the second or third trial, but adult NVHL rats needed about 12 tries. Throughout training, the NVHL rats entered the shock zone about four times as often as did controls, and when the shock zone location was changed on them, they took longer to avoid the new region than controls did. Control experiments suggested that this was not due to hyperactivity, or to impairments in motivation, spatial perception, memory, or navigation.

In adolescence (postnatal day 35), however, NVHL rats readily mastered the task, learning to avoid the shock zone as quickly as controls did. The researchers then found that this experience could serve as training for solving a similar T-maze task, which required focusing on some cues but ignoring others, in adulthood. The T-maze required the rats to learn which arm of the maze—left or right—delivered a shock; after 15 trials, the shock and non-shock arms were switched, requiring the rats to relearn the relevant cues. NVHL adults that had been trained with shock zone avoidance as adolescents performed the T-maze task as well as their control counterparts, which consisted of rats trained on shock zone avoidance as adolescents and rats that weren’t trained, but exposed to the test arena as adolescents without receiving any shocks. In contrast, NVHL rats that were merely exposed to the test arena as adolescents made more mistakes on the T-maze, averaging about one more wrong turn than the others. This difference extended to shock zone avoidance learning in adulthood, too: the NVHL rats trained as adolescents performed at control levels, whereas the NVHL rats that were only exposed to the test arena had difficulty learning the task.

Out of synch
These differences suggested that adolescent training had a lasting influence on the brain, leading the researchers to search for neural correlates of the training. Local field potential recordings in the left and right hippocampus became more synchronized while adult control rats performed the shock zone avoidance task, but this was not as pronounced for adult NVHL rats. Shock avoidance training in adolescence, however, seemed to boost synchrony: trained NVHL rats had increased synchrony across several frequency ranges compared to NVHL rats without training, and were comparable to trained controls. Because of these and other physiologic changes associated with adolescent training (e.g., in synchrony between hippocampus and neocortex, and in parvalbumin labeling in neocortical cells), the authors propose that training exerted its effects on neural circuitry responsible for synchronous brain oscillations, which contribute to cognitive control.

The findings suggest that neurodevelopment can be guided away from an aberrant course, but whether the adolescent brain is particularly pliable remains unclear. As researchers delineate the changes in brain structure and processing in human adolescence, a more complete picture of neurodevelopment will emerge, which may help identify the glitches that preface schizophrenia.—Michele Solis.

Lee H, Dvorak D, Kao HY, Duffy AM, Scharfman HE, Fenton AA. Early Cognitive Experience Prevents Adult Deficits in a Neurodevelopmental Schizophrenia Model. Neuron. 2012 Aug 22. Abstract

Comments on News and Primary Papers
Comment by:  Til Wykes
Submitted 24 August 2012
Posted 24 August 2012

The notion that cognitive remediation is effective in producing cognitive and functional gains in established schizophrenia (Wykes et al., 2011), and produces other gains such as changes identified in brain imaging (e.g., Wykes et al., 2002) is unsurprising. But the paper on remediation in adolescent rats by Lee and colleagues provides results that the authors do consider surprising, and could lead to further extensions of cognitive remediation to those who are "at risk" for disorders such as schizophrenia. This is because of the procognitive effects of providing training in youthful rats.

Procognitive effects of experience-based training are not, however, surprising. The authors quote research showing that there are functional changes with training—the one that springs to my mind is London taxi drivers whose hippocampi are larger following their "training" for The Knowledge—an all-roads-in-London test. So why are the authors surprised? Perhaps it is because the results may have further implications for treatment and prevention, but only if followed up in those who are “at risk,” a notion that has produced much heat and not much light in the annals of SRF. We have been optimistic about the possibility of change in prodromal patients using cognitive behavioral therapy, but that hope has not yet been justified in the current research. It may be that this form of experience-based learning is of greater help in the prodromal group than the traditional cognitive behavioral therapies. It may also be that we need to begin our interventions in school by identifying those who are cognitively at risk for many different future problems, not just schizophrenia.

The results also suggest that even when there is a known lesion, it is possible to normalize behavior as well as produce some correlated neuronal change. This is exciting, as it opens up the possibility of finding cures, if not for the whole disorder at least for some of the problems or symptoms of schizophrenia. All this can be produced by a non-pharmacological intervention. This is something that will surely excite the providers of healthcare, as the cost-benefit would be very high if the future health costs for these patients were reduced through such means.


Wykes T, Brammer M, Mellers J, Bray P, Reeder C, Williams C, Corner J. Effects on the brain of a psychological treatment: cognitive remediation therapy: functional magnetic resonance imaging in schizophrenia. Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Aug;181:144-52. Abstract

Wykes T, Huddy V, Cellard C, McGurk SR, Czobor P. A meta-analysis of cognitive remediation for schizophrenia: methodology and effect sizes. Am J Psychiatry . 2011 May ; 168(5):472-85. Abstract

View all comments by Til WykesComment by:  Angus MacDonald, SRF Advisor
Submitted 24 August 2012
Posted 24 August 2012

In their new Neuron article, Lee and colleagues from Andre Fenton’s group at NYU report that spatial cognitive control deficits in a rat model of schizophrenia can be prevented through a ratish analogue of cognitive remediation therapy during adolescence. The importance of early intervention has been one of the hottest debates in applied schizophrenia research; the current findings suggest a basic mechanism in support of such efforts.

What is remarkable about the Fenton study is how small a training “dosage” was required to lead to markedly different adult performance. Two days of training about five weeks after birth led to marked changes in the rats’ capacity to use spatial cognitive control eight to nine weeks after birth.

Rats were sacrificed at the end of the experiment, allowing the researchers to examine the extent to which the initial lesion had affected brain development. The initial lesions dramatically altered hippocampal development. Despite this, lesioned rats who received training did not show any observable difference in brain morphology in adulthood compared to lesioned rats who did not receive training. That is to say, the integrity of the hippocampus measured grossly did not predetermine that rats would perform poorly on the spatial cognitive control task—if they received training. However, subsequent analysis demonstrated that phase synchronization between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (which rats possess, albeit not in extremis) was compromised in the lesioned rats who did not receive training, but was recovered in those that did receive training.

Thus, the data suggest that fundamentally important circuitry can be guided through training that is relevant for later cognitive functioning.

What is absent is evidence for the specialness of adolescent intervention. This seems to be assumed from previous work rather than the result of comparisons of implementing the intervention at different ages.

It’s also interesting to note that hippocampal lesion models are generally evaluated using memory-related tasks. Fenton’s task presents something of a hybrid. The spatial cognitive control paradigm used is appropriately adapted to the species in question, but in the abstract it has features similar to that of the Stroop task. In Fenton’s active place avoidance task, there is a dominant channel for responding on which the rat is over-trained, like the Stroop task's word reading component on which most people reading this text have been over-training. There is also a subordinate channel for responding, with which the rat is familiarized, something like color naming on the Stroop task. However, a key aspect of the manipulation is the inability to learn a new zone to avoid, which may be more akin to perseveration than to Stroop performance. Rotation of shock zone to a new location is described as task transference, but since the original learning was a source of interference (and needed to be inhibited) in the subsequent task, I’m not sure I agree with this description.

This work will be warmly received by a large number of advocates who are pushing for interventions earlier in the risk period. One advantage the authors had compared to those in the clinical schizophrenia field is that they knew which of their rats were strongly exposed and were therefore at the highest risk. While our screening tools have been honed over the past decade, they still have a high false-positive rate. One can take some solace, though, that cognitive remediation is unlikely to have extensive negative side effects. Except, perhaps, boredom.

View all comments by Angus MacDonaldComment by:  Patrick McGorry, SRF Advisor
Submitted 27 August 2012
Posted 27 August 2012

I am always a little skeptical of animal models of psychosis or schizophrenia, which are pretty high-order disturbances and seem very specific to humans. If this model has some validity, the preventive therapy in humans would be more akin to cognitive remediation therapy rather than cognitive therapy per se, which has more CBT links or connotations.

View all comments by Patrick McGorryComment by:  Barbara K. Lipska
Submitted 27 August 2012
Posted 27 August 2012

Lee et al. report exciting new data in support of the neurodevelopmental hypothesis of schizophrenia and the plausibility of the early intervention that might prevent the emergence of schizophrenia symptoms. Lee and colleagues used a neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion in rats as a model of schizophrenia.

First, using the active place avoidance task with carefully designed control tasks, they showed that the animals with neonatal lesions are cognitively impaired as adults, consistent with the results of the previous studies (see Tseng et al., 2009, for review). Next, they examined whether training of the lesioned animals in adolescence would prevent the emergence of these abnormalities. They exposed the animals to a series of cognitive tests and found that, indeed, the neonatally lesioned rats that acquired additional training as adolescents showed improved cognition in adulthood. Moreover, specific measures of neural function were also improved. The authors recorded local field potentials in the hippocampi and found that the neonatally lesioned animals showed deficits in interhippocampal synchrony, the findings similar to the changes reported in patients with schizophrenia. Adolescent cognitive training normalized interhippocampal synchrony and improved performance on the cognitive tasks in the neonatally hippocampally lesioned rats. Finally, to gain more insight into the mechanisms of these changes, the authors measured cortical thickness and parvalbumin protein content, but these parameters were not informative about the benefits of cognitive training in this animal model of schizophrenia.

The results of this study support the notion that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by discoordinated neural networks, and provide critical evidence for the benefits of early behavioral intervention. Although we still do not fully understand the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying schizophrenia, or the mechanisms responsible for the improvements due to cognitive training, this work certainly offers a potential new therapeutic tool in the form of preemptive cognitive therapy.


Tseng KY, Chambers RA, Lipska BK. The neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion as a heuristic neurodevelopmental model of schizophrenia. Behav Brain Res . 2009 Dec 7 ; 204(2):295-305. Abstract

View all comments by Barbara K. Lipska

Primary Papers: Early cognitive experience prevents adult deficits in a neurodevelopmental schizophrenia model.

Comment by:  Patricio O'Donnell, SRF Advisor
Submitted 4 September 2012
Posted 5 September 2012
  I recommend this paper

Can cognitive training restore function in a developmentally compromised neural circuit? This is a critical question that may open the door to novel preventive strategies for disorders with a developmental component but adult onset, such as schizophrenia. Lee et al. used rats with a neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion to test whether cognitive experience could prevent the emergence of typical schizophrenia-related deficits in adulthood in this model. The study is elegant, the data quite convincing, and the implications are vast. This is indeed a perfect example of what the field of schizophrenia research needs: the use of animal models as tools to test specific hypotheses.

Animal models of schizophrenia have been around for quite some time, and new ones keep being proposed. The data obtained from pharmacological, developmental, environmental, and genetic models over the past decade have been critical for shaping current thoughts about possible pathophysiological scenarios. But the field is still caught in the trap of trying to think of models as reproducing the disease, and therefore in need of validity assessments. In all honesty, seeking a schizophrenic rat or mouse is misguided, as this is a uniquely human disorder. However, animal models are fantastic tools to test specific hypotheses regarding predisposing factors, the role of neurochemical or circuit pathways during development, etc., on neural processes that may be associated with the disease. In this case, Lee and colleagues used a widely used model that, independent of real or perceived validity issues, does allow them to test whether cognitive experience can rescue the effect of a developmentally impaired circuit. This is indeed a wise, hypothesis-driven use of an animal model that can help the field move forward.

Adult rats with a neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion exhibit a number of cognitive deficits, including altered working memory, set shifting, and reversal learning (Brady et al., 2010; Gruber et al., 2010; McDannald et al., 2011), along with altered prefrontal cortical oscillatory activity during goal-directed behaviors (Gruber et al., 2010) and altered function in prefrontal cortical interneurons (Tseng et al., 2008). In their manuscript, Lee et al. report deficits in cognitive control and altered interhippocampal synchrony in adult NVHL rats. Cognitive control was tested using a place-avoidance task in which the animals had to use relevant cues (and ignore irrelevant ones) to avoid receiving an electric shock; NVHL rats showed impairment when they were challenged to dissociate relevant from irrelevant cues, despite being proficient at the task when only relevant cues were presented. When NVHL rats were trained in the task as adolescents, their performance as adults improved dramatically. This training also yielded improved hippocampal synchrony and changes in parvalbumin staining compared to non-trained rats.

In short, the data strongly argue that the behavioral and circuit connectivity consequences of a developmentally altered prefrontal cortex can be prevented by engaging those circuits in cognitive training. It will be important to extend these observations to other models that also produce cognitive deficits and altered prefrontal cortical function.

There is a strong resurgence of cognitive-based therapies and other cognitive approaches in schizophrenia. The work by Lee at al. suggests that these approaches would be better utilized at early stages, and perhaps could be optimal tools for high-risk populations. But perhaps the most important aspect of this work is how it illuminates the use of animal models to address specific questions, allowing the field to gain useful information without falling into the validity traps.


Brady AM, Saul RD, Wiest MK (2010) Selective deficits in spatial working memory in the neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion rat model of schizophrenia. Neuropharmacology 59:605-611. Abstract

Gruber AJ, Calhoon GG, Shusterman I, Schoenbaum G, Roesch MR, O'Donnell P (2010) More is less: a disinhibited prefrontal cortex impairs cognitive flexibility. J Neurosci 30:17102-17110. Abstract

McDannald MA, Whitt JP, Calhoon GG, Piantadosi PT, Karlsson RM, O'Donnell P, Schoenbaum G (2011) Impaired reality testing in an animal model of schizophrenia. Biol Psychiatry 70:1122-1126. Abstract

Tseng KY, Lewis BL, Hashimoto T, Sesack SR, Kloc M, Lewis DA, O'Donnell P (2008) A neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion causes functional deficits in adult prefrontal cortical interneurons. J Neurosci 28:12691-12699. Abstract

View all comments by Patricio O'Donnell

Comments on Related News

Related News: Added Value: Combined Therapy Benefits People With Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Wendy Camp
Submitted 18 October 2010
Posted 18 October 2010

In Connecticut we have a wonderful Medicaid/T19/Behavioral Health program that allows home health nurses to monitor and/or administer medications for noncompliant mental health patients and home health aides to be in the home up to 14 hours a week to assist with medication reminders, ADLs, and IADLs.

I would be interested to know what impact our behavioral health nurses might have on an early-stage schizophrenia population versus our chronic noncompliant population. If we had our nurses in the home sooner, could we correct potentially problematic behavior before it became chronic?

View all comments by Wendy Camp

Related News: Added Value: Combined Therapy Benefits People With Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Douglas Turkington (Disclosure)
Submitted 16 November 2010
Posted 17 November 2010

This paper is important because of its power and because this most basic question has never been satisfactorily answered. My concern is the very high dropout rate in both groups. Dropout across CBT of schizophrenia trials normally averages about 15 percent. CBT also usually attempts to work from a mini-formulation or macro-formulation which extends beyond the A-B-C. The CBT given here, however, does parallel the pragmatic technique-orientated CBT given in the Insight trial (Turkington et al., 2002). The problem here would appear to be the delivery of all four interventions in group format on the same day once per month. This is a massive burden on patients with cognitive deficits, negative symptoms, and treatment-resistant hallucinations and delusions. We must therefore be guarded about the conclusions. There is a signal, however, of the need for a psychosocial component in the management of every patient with schizophrenia. We are grateful to the authors for this publication.


Turkington D, Kingdon D and Turner T. (2002) Effectiveness of a brief cognitive-behavioural therapy intervention in the treatment of schizophrenia. British Journal of Psychiatry 180, 523-527. Abstract

View all comments by Douglas Turkington

Related News: SIRS 2012—Psychological and Social Treatment for Schizophrenia

Comment by:  Lewis Kirshner
Submitted 18 June 2012
Posted 20 June 2012

The field seems to be cautiously returning to look seriously at psychotherapeutic approaches. Paying attention to forms of cognition and affect has been a traditional form of therapy, and it seems foolish to ignore the clinical experiences of its many practitioners, despite conceptual problems of past work. We also have the benefits of studies indicating the effects of trauma on subsequent psychosis and developmental research on attachment and language that may mediate early neglect or trauma. Problems in development of TOM in insecure attachment may point to specific vulnerabilities.


Berry K, Barrowclough C, Wearden A. Attachment theory: a framework for understanding symptoms and interpersonal relationships in psychosis. Behav Res Ther . 2008 Dec ; 46(12):1275-82. Abstract

Fonagy P, Target M. Playing with reality: I. Theory of mind and the normal development of psychic reality. Int J Psychoanal . 1996 Apr ; 77 ( Pt 2)():217-33. Abstract

Heins M, Simons C, Lataster T, Pfeifer S, Versmissen D, Lardinois M, Marcelis M, Delespaul P, Krabbendam L, van Os J, Myin-Germeys I. Childhood trauma and psychosis: a case-control and case-sibling comparison across different levels of genetic liability, psychopathology, and type of trauma. Am J Psychiatry . 2011 Dec ; 168(12):1286-94. Abstract

Lysaker PH, Outcalt SD, Ringer JM. Clinical and psychosocial significance of trauma history in schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Expert Rev Neurother . 2010 Jul ; 10(7):1143-51. Abstract

Read J, Gumley J. Can attachment theory help explain the relationship between childhood adversity and psychosis? Attachment New Directions in Psychotherapy. Relational Analysis. 2008;2:1-35.

View all comments by Lewis Kirshner

Related News: Model of Schizophrenia Cortical Deficits Reversed With Antioxidants

Comment by:  Barbara K. Lipska
Submitted 21 August 2014
Posted 22 August 2014

This is a highly original and exciting paper demonstrating that juvenile antioxidant treatment can be effective in preventing a number of severe deficits in the neonatal hippocampal lesion model of schizophrenia. The authors chose an unusual approach to reversing and preventing behavioral, electrophysiological, and neurochemical changes described in many previous papers as characteristic of this animal model as well as human schizophrenia (Lipska et al., 1993; Lipska and Weinberger, 2000; Tseng et al., 2009). First, they showed that the neonatal excitotoxic lesion of the hippocampus results in oxidative stress in the prefrontal cortex early in development, perhaps caused by the loss of projections from the ventral hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex during a critical period in development. Second, they were able to prevent a number of abnormalities that mimic certain aspects of human schizophrenia by treating presymptomatic animals with several classes of antioxidant drugs. These drugs have the potential to be effective in humans and offer a much needed alternative to the current therapeutic treatment of schizophrenia.

Early intervention in people at risk for schizophrenia has been at the forefront of research in recent years due to the increased emphasis in society on mental illness, but few realistic, effective, and safe solutions have been found. Breaking the vicious circle of the developmental trajectory and preventing long-term disability accompanying this illness are of utmost importance and have been well recognized (see, e.g., Lieberman et al., 2013). The results of the study by Cabungcal et al. may bring us closer to finding a better way of treatment but require a lot more work to be done. For instance, would we know whom to pretreat? How does smoking factor into the oxidative stress, and contribute or interact with these new potential medications? Are antioxidants proposed as the sole solution, or would they be considered additives to more traditional therapies? Are they really safe and effective in humans? We will be impatiently waiting for research addressing these questions.


Lipska BK, Jaskiw GE, Weinberger DR. Postpubertal emergence of hyperresponsiveness to stress and to amphetamine after neonatal excitotoxic hippocampal damage: a potential animal model of schizophrenia. Neuropsychopharmacology . 1993 Aug ; 9(1):67-75. Abstract

Lipska BK, Weinberger DR. To model a psychiatric disorder in animals: schizophrenia as a reality test. Neuropsychopharmacology . 2000 Sep ; 23(3):223-39. Abstract

Tseng KY, Chambers RA, Lipska BK. The neonatal ventral hippocampal lesion as a heuristic neurodevelopmental model of schizophrenia. Behav Brain Res . 2009 Dec 7 ; 204(2):295-305. Abstract

Lieberman JA, Dixon LB, Goldman HH. Early detection and intervention in schizophrenia: a new therapeutic model. JAMA . 2013 Aug 21 ; 310(7):689-90. Abstract

View all comments by Barbara K. Lipska