Schizophrenia expert Tamminga presents next President’s Lecture
By Patrick McGee
Two impressions are inevitable when Dr. Carol Tamminga talks about schizophrenia – the disease is incredibly complex, and she has embraced that complexity.
Dr. Tamminga, Chairman of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, is recognized internationally as an expert on schizophrenia, which can beset those affected with hallucinations and delusions so realistic that it makes normal life extremely difficult. Less than 15 percent of people with the illness are employed, and less than 20 percent are married.
As part of the President’s Lecture Series, Dr. Tamminga will speak about the disease in a lecture titled “Schizophrenia: Tracking Psychosis” on Thursday, April 10, at 4 p.m. in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium. A reception will follow the presentation.
Schizophrenia often comes to public attention when a person with the illness carries out an unreasonable or violent act, such as John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, or Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. However, such extreme cases represent only a small fraction of the individuals suffering from the illness. Additionally, only about 1 percent of the U.S. population has schizophrenia, and those afflicted often drop out of the public’s awareness – though not out of the lives of their family and friends – as they struggle with the disease.
As basic neuroscience discoveries expand the understanding of complex brain functions, these discoveries are revealing brain mechanisms that potentially underlie schizophrenia. Even so, Dr. Tamminga said scientists’ understanding of the disease is still so basic because the understanding of the normal brain is still developing.
“It’s like trying to figure out what caused fever in the 1930s, when people didn’t know about micro-organisms and didn’t know that their infections generated fevers,” she said. “We’re about at that same point with a lot of psychotic symptoms.”
Dr. Tamminga’s work has focused largely on the hippocampus, a relatively small but crucial part of the brain that is essential to learning and making memories.
“The brain is arguably the most complicated organ in the body. It is the undiscovered organ in the body, and its function in humans is only partially understood. Up until 20 to 25 years ago, people were just drawing the brain as a black box because we didn’t have much knowledge of how the brain worked,” said Dr. Tamminga, who was elected into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1998. “Today, basic neuroscience is burgeoning. It’s just exploding with very interesting findings, and these findings are telling us a lot about human brain diseases.”
Dr. Tamminga noted that it was brain imaging studies that led her and other researchers to focus on the hippocampus, where the normal brain makes something like a bar code of memories to retrieve later. The hippocampus of schizophrenic people is hyperactive and may make mistakes of memory, some with psychotic content.
“Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to even speculate on what generates a hallucination. But now there is such rich knowledge of how the hippocampus functions that it is possible to actually speculate on what kinds of alteration in brain function could produce a hallucination or a delusion,” she said.
Dr. Tamminga also noted that determining how the brain of a person with schizophrenia is different from the brain of a person without schizophrenia is the first question that must be answered to find a treatment for the illness. “And so far, nobody has answered the question,” she added.
Dr. Tamminga joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 2003. She graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and completed a psychiatry residency at the University of Chicago. She is the co-founder and organizer of the International Congress on Schizophrenia Research, Inc., and her past academic appointments include time at the University of Maryland; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Dr. Tamminga has served on the intramural scientific boards of both the NIMH and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and she currently is a member of the NIMH Scientific Council, co-chair of NIMH’s Blue Ribbon panel, and serves as deputy editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry. Dr. Tamminga has published more than 350 papers and two books in the area of psychopharmacology, neuroscience, and schizophrenia.
Dr. Tamminga holds the Lou and Ellen McGinley Distinguished Chair in Psychiatric Research; the Communities Foundation of Texas Chair in Brain Science; and the McKenzie Foundation Chair in Psychiatry I.