Researchers found that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland elicited unique responses in the brains of viewers with psychosis.
Researchers in Finland made a groundbreaking discovery that will help future doctors detect psychosis. Using functional MRI scans to observe the brains of psychotic patients and a control group, scientists compared their brain activity while doing the exact same task — in this case, watching Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The results led to an important discovery: people with psychosis mentally process information differently than those without the condition.
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Psychosis is a mental health problem that causes people to perceive or interpret things differently than the average Joe, and hallucinations and delusions aren’t an uncommon side effect. So, why did the researchers choose Alice in Wonderland to conduct the research? The experiment needed the participants to experience something information-rich with colorful stimuli in order to induce as much brain response as possible. Anyone who’s seen Burton’s whimsical film knows that a trip down the rabbit hole into the bizarre world of Wonderland would provide the researchers with the perfect brain stimulus.
The research team scanned the brains of 46 first-episode psychotic patients and 32 healthy control participants. Early psychosis is the most difficult kind to detect since the patterns in the brain aren’t “hard wired” yet — the psychotic activity is much more subtle. But even in the first-episode psychotic patients, the researchers detected significant differences in the precuneus region of the brain, which is the area associated with memory, spatial awareness, self-awareness, and certain aspects of consciousness.
Using the records of the brain activity while watching Alice in Wonderland, the researchers were able to distinguish the psychotic patients from the control subjects with about 80 percent accuracy. Since detecting early psychosis is particularly difficult, these results were very promising.
Lead researcher Eva Rikandi of Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland, told the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) that the results show that the precuneus brain region — “a central hub for the integration of self- and episodic-memory-related information” — plays an important role in the information processing of psychotic patients. “This is the first study which directly associates the beginnings of psychosis with the precuneus, so it is now important that much more research is done in this area,” she said.
It’s particularly fitting that the researchers chose the movie Alice in Wonderland for their study. The film is about a strange, fantastical world, and it deeply stimulates the imagination. The ECNP President-Elect, Professor Celso Arango of Madrid, probed, “What we would like to know is if patients with psychosis might see this as more or less relevant to their own life than would healthy controls.” And would a movie that might be perceived as more plain or boring elicit the same results?
While the study is an intriguing one to say the least, the findings suggest that there may soon be an easier way to screen for psychosis. The condition is triggered by a number of different prompts — anything from smoking marijuana to having a history of psychosis down the family line. When dealing with such an erratic brain disorder, it’s essential that doctors have a more reliable way of detecting and diagnosing patients in the early stages before the psychosis evolves.