Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., doesn’t want much — she just aims to discover the cause of schizophrenia and develop a way to prevent it.
Barch, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and assistant professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, devotes much of her research to studying schizophrenia in order to better understand the mental illness. Her focus is on identifying young people at risk for the disease and tracking the development of symptoms, with an eye toward prevention.
“It seems to me there’s a lot of promise in trying to detect and intervene early before the onset of full-blown schizophrenia,” says Barch, a University faculty member since 1998. “Can we predict who is going to develop schizophrenia and can we intervene early enough to prevent the symptoms — hallucinations, delusions, disordered thought processes and behaviors — from ever occurring?”
Scientists in Barch’s lab are studying two groups at heightened risk of developing schizophrenia: individuals with schizotypal personality disorder, which is thought to be genetically associated with schizophrenia, and siblings of people with schizophrenia. The participating siblings do not yet have the disease but are not yet past the risk period for developing it.
Barch has found that studying people already ill with the disease has a number of challenges, “including the effects of medication, hospitalization and co-morbid disorders such as substance abuse,” she says.
“Studying individuals at risk for schizophrenia provides a way of avoiding some of these complications and determining the causal role that specific neurobiological and/or cognitive deficits play in the development of schizophrenia.”
These studies involve testing participants on certain kinds of cognitive, memory and learning tasks while acquiring images of their brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.
Barch looks for changes in brain activity while her collaborator, John G. Csernansky, M.D., the Gregory B. Couch Professor of psychiatry and associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the medical school, studies the structural changes in the volume, size and shape of various brain regions in the same individuals.
In 2001, Csernansky and Barch received a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to open a Conte Center for Neuroscience Research. The center oversees several major brain-mapping projects designed to locate and identify anatomical differences in people who have or are at risk for schizophrenia.
“Deanna’s work is really at the cutting edge of what the National Institute of Mental Health refers to as ‘translational research,'” says Ann Kring, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “She has made some important discoveries about cognitive processes in schizophrenia, such as working memory, that have really made a significant impact in the field.”
Another WUSTL collaborator, Yvette I. Sheline, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and of neurology and assistant professor of radiology, calls Barch a “wonderful colleague and collaborator” and says she believes Barch’s most significant contribution to date is the use of fMRI to demonstrate brain areas that are underactive “when cognitive processing goes awry in schizophrenia.”
Barch’s commitment to early detection has its roots in her own early years in Florissant, then Chesterfield, both in St. Louis County.
“I’ve known I wanted to be a psychologist ever since high school, although what kind of psychologist changed pretty dramatically,” she says. “I felt like there were a lot of kids who had problems in high school who were ignored or overlooked and really didn’t do very well.
“So I wanted to be a high-school counselor and try to identify these kids and to determine early on if there are things you could do to help.”
She took psychology classes and became a peer counselor at Parkway Central High School.
“I was a psych major from the first day of college” at Northwestern University, Barch says.
Her abnormal-psychology professor, depression researcher Lauren Alloy, tapped some of her star students, including Barch, to become her research assistants.
“I liked it so much,” Barch says. “I became her honors student, and that set me on the path of being more interested in the research or academic side of psychology.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1987, Barch spent a year in Chicago as a case manager for an experimental program for the chronically mentally ill.
“I have this vivid memory of working with this young guy who was 20 or 21, who had been in college and had a psychotic break and really never got better,” Barch says. “Talking to him and realizing that he had all these goals in his life — he wanted to go on to college and get married and have a career — and then he developed this disorder and it was pretty clear that he was never going to get to accomplish all these things.
“It just seemed to me such a waste of potential. It seemed unfair — why is that not happening to me? Why do I get to go on and have this wonderful life and achieve all these things whereas this person is going to be tormented by this horrible mental illness? So then I decided I really wanted to focus on schizophrenia.”
She applied to graduate school at the University of Illinois to work specifically in the schizophrenia area. Although her career path changed from counselor to researcher, she says her motivation remained the same: “Can we identify signs of mental illness early and intervene early?”
After earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in clinical psychology from Illinois in 1991 and 1993, respectively, Barch served a one-year internship at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. She followed up the internship with a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in Jonathan D. Cohen’s lab, also at WPIC.
That’s when her personal life got especially interesting. She began dating Todd S. Braver, Ph.D., who was also working in Cohen’s lab. A few years later, they made the relationship permanent and embarked on the next stage of their careers together.
“We went on the job market, got jobs, got married, moved and had a kid all in one year,” Barch says.
Braver and Barch applied independently for two open positions in the WUSTL Department of Psychology, and they were both hired in 1998. Barch and Braver, assistant professor of psychology, now co-direct the cognitive control and psychopathology laboratory in the psychology department.
Deanna M. Barch
Hometown: St. Louis
Degrees: B.A. 1987, psychology, Northwestern University; M.A. 1991, Ph.D. 1993, both in clinical psychology, University of Illinois
Courses taught: “Abnormal Psychology” (undergraduate survey course); “Biological Bases of the Major Mental Disorders” (undergraduate/graduate); “Neuropsychological Syndromes” and “Personality Assessment” (both graduate-level)
Family: Husband, Todd S. Braver, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and co-director with Barch of the WUSTL cognitive control and psychopathology laboratory; daughters Rachel, 4, and Elizabeth, 1
“She is an inspiration for me, particularly as a woman in science,” says Caroline Racine, a fifth-year graduate student. “She has been able to balance having a family while writing multiple grants, papers and being evaluated for tenure.
“She also consistently demonstrates high-quality research, puts a lot of time and effort into her classes and genuinely cares about her students as individuals.”
Barch and Braver now have two daughters, Rachel, 4, and Elizabeth, 1. Barch is quick to point out that she could not balance it all without help from her parents, who still live in the house where she and her older brother grew up in Chesterfield.
Twice a week, Barch’s parents baby-sit their granddaughters and make dinner for the family. Meanwhile, father-in-law Sanford Braver, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, provides long-distance career-related advice to the couple.
Jennifer Mathews, a second-year graduate student who has worked in Barch’s lab for four-and-a-half years, calls her a “dedicated scientist, researcher and mentor.”
“Her philosophy in mentoring me has been to enable me to develop as a scientist while providing support and feedback required to reach my goals,” Mathews says.
Barch was named an Outstanding Faculty Mentor in 2000 by the Graduate Student Senate.
Among the many recognitions she has received from her peers is the 2002 Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contri-bution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association (APA).
“We all found Deanna’s record to be outstanding,” says Susan Mineka, director of clinical training at Northwestern, who was chair of the APA award committee. “Her experiments are elegant and creative. When you read some of (Barch’s papers), you can see what a brilliant young investigator she is.”