Mapping Brain Circuits in Schizophrenia: Dr. Vikaas Sohal

Today I bring you a discussion with Dr. Vikaas Sohal, Staglin Family/IMHRO Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF. Dr. Sohal conducts pioneering research in his lab to unravel how neurons connect in circuits, and how they behave abnormally in psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia. If you like, you can read a summary of Dr. Sohal's recent studies in our research section.

Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences and asking Dr. Sohal some important questions. Big thanks to Dr. Sohal for answering them! Comments are now closed.

Please visit again in January, when Dr. Colleen McClung will talk about her promising hunt for potential therapies for bipolar disorder through regulation of specific genes.


Hello everyone! I look forward to hearing your questions and will do my best to answer them.

So are the current meds being used to treat schizophrenia okay or you looking for alternatives? Do these meds work with the oscillations you talked about to improve schizophrenia or do they perpetuate the problem? My son started out on Geodon two years ago when he was first diagnosed at age 23 and was switched to Zyprexa a few months ago. The Zyprexa works better than the Geodon did for keeping the "voices" quiet. Is depression related to the oscillations, too? I am thankful for scientists like you who continue to search for answers.

Kim, thank you for your kind words and interest in my work. Of course, since I'm not your son's physician, I can't say what is or is not the right medication for him. But I think most psychiatrists and schizophrenia researchers would agree that current medications are far from perfect, both in terms of how well they work, and their side effects. Also, certain individuals respond better to some medications than others, although we don't yet know why this is the case, nor how to predict which medication will work best for a particular individual. So I am focused on understanding how to design better medications. In particular, we think that abnormalities in brain oscillations may contribute to certain more subtle symptoms of schizophrenia, besides symptoms like "the voices." These other symptoms can include difficulties concentrating, remembering information, or planning complex tasks. These kinds of "cognitive" symptoms are not well treated by existing medications. Existing medications weren't designed to correct abnormal brain oscillations (they might affect these oscillations, but this is still being studied). So, we're hopeful that by designing treatments that do affect things like brain oscillations, we might be able to come up with drugs that do a better job of treating cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia. Hopefully this kind of approach will lead to drugs that will eventually help your son and others (it's frustrating that this is such a slow process, but please don't give up hope!).

Thank you, Dr. Sohal, for your informative reply. I look forward to hearing more about your research and progress in the future. Thank you for doing such a great service for mankind.
Janice's picture

I wrote a very descriptive piece for you to respond to, and while sending it disappeared. So frustrating as I feel there is not enough public information. My grown children think less of me, even though I had extremely collage, Uof W Grad with honors from UCD. I live under a magnifying glass. I don't know much about onset of bipolar. I believe we have not progressed in the area of public understanding. I am Janice. I am not bipolar. I have bipolar disease. (We not say she is cancer) I wrote a much better ? earlier. Janice

Janice. Thank you for your comment. I actually think what you ended up writing is very descriptive. It is very unfortunate and unfair that people battling mental illness have to endure stigma. As Steve Hyman said at this year's Staglin festival, if you were battling cancer, you would be a hero. Hopefully, society will do a better job of appreciating individuals like you for your heroic accomplishments -- in your case, overcoming mental illness and obtaining higher education degrees with honors.

Dear Mr. Sohal, With the research being done on the brain today, is there any projection of time that a cure or at least a moderate to substantial cure can be found for those suffering a mental illness? If so, through what means: medication, therapy, evasive or non-evasive means or in conjunction with each other? Thank You, Tony Ferrigno

Dear Tony, Thanks for your question. This is obviously the most important question for patients and family members dealing with mental illness. Unfortunately, almost any prediction I give about when we will find a "cure" is going to be wrong. But I think I can still give some useful information. I think that in the last decade, we have identified a number of fundamentally new ideas about how to treat major mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression. Some of these ideas will lead to drugs, others will lead to non-invasive treatments like cognitive remediation for schizophrenia, and still others will lead to invasive treatments like deep brain stimulation. A few of these new treatments are being tested now, and in 5 years some of them might actually be widely available. But most of these are still at the idea stage. It will probably take at least 5-10 years to design treatments based on these ideas, and 5-10 years to test these treatments. So I think we will see a number of new treatments in the next 5-20 years. I don't think these will be "cures" but these treatments will make a real difference in patients' lives. Some of these will be treatments that have a huge impact, but are only appropriate for a very specific group of patients (for example, deep brain stimulation for treatment refractory depression). Other treatments might have more modest benefits that complement current treatments, but are useful for many patients (for example cognitive remediation for schizophrenia). But let me add one thing: I believe that within my lifetime we will see truly revolutionary advances in treatments for at least some forms of major mental illness. I think that is more than 20 years in the future, but I believe it will happen.

I suffer from (for now) Major Depressive Disorder that cropped up after the birth of each of my children, grew in strength by the second child and after discontinuing my medication four years after the birth of my second and last child (just didn't know I shouldn't have done that) grew astronomically into a year and a half long nightmare, about to repeat itself again. I too noticed after the birth of my children, not something so much as depression but fear, terror, demonic delusions, thoughts that I heard things...these were very small yet obvious additions to my depression. After stopping my medication it was just plain depression, physical pain, unbelievable feelings of pulling down throughout my body, and suicidal ideation. Yes I had a very traumatic childhood. But I did not have a real problem with depression until after I gave birth. I am often angered by the notion that my childhood trauma plays a part in something happening 30 years later. As I stated above there seemed to be elements of psychosis or something that originally occurred with my post par tum depression. No real question here just an agreement with some of the statements above that sight similarities to other mental illnesses that are not part of the diagnosis, and the thought that these mental illnesses share brain paths therefore possibly eliminating things such as "child hood trauma" I'm sure for every child who has had childhood trauma and experiences a mental illness there are just as many if not more who have had child hood trauma and do not deal with mental illness.'s picture

Hi Cindy,

Thank you for sharing your experience and ideas. I know what you mean about "extra-curricular" symptoms, shall we say--my schizophrenia is garnished with anxiety symptoms as well. And, my childhood was not traumatic, except for an episode of bleeding and anoxia during my birth which *might* have affected my brain. Due to this, genes, or whatever else, some part of me has always seized upon suggestions of danger and mentally blown them out of proportion. I am sure this trait has been a major player in the development of my psychiatric syndrome.

And, I sympathize with your disappointment at your recurrence of symptoms. When I had my third psychiatric hospitalization in 1996 and was back at square one, I had to stay away from rooftops and hold myself back from stepping into busy roads. As I said in my message on Facebook, my own stubbornness (and trust in medicine) pulled me through and eventually life got better for me, and for the last five years has stayed that way, thank God.

I sincerely hope for the best for you too. After what you've been through you've earned some peace and happiness to say the least!


Cindy -- thanks for sharing your experience and valuable perspective. I just want to follow up on Brandon's excellent response by saying that as a scientist and physician, I am 100% certain that the kinds of symptoms you have described originate from biological processes in the brain. And there are very few events that can alter the biology of the brain (or the rest of the body) as much as pregnancy and childbirth. So it makes perfect sense that in your case, the symptoms you describe were the result of biological changes in the post-partum period. In fact, research has shown that mice which have alterations in a single gene can exhibit behaviors that resemble post-partum depression. These mice are normal until pregnancy, but after giving birth, they exhibit signs of depression and increased anxiety. Not only are their symptoms triggered by biological changes, they can also be treated with medications.

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