A UCF researcher is studying whether certain visual abnormalities could shed light on the cause of some cases of severe mental illness.

Jeffrey S. Bedwell, a licensed psychologist and associate professor at UCF, is working on a $404,000 National Institute of Mental Health grant that is examining whether there is a link between visual-processing abnormalities and illnesses such as schizophrenia, which affect more than 2 million people in the United States.

Bedwell is looking for participants for his study being conducted in the Psychophysiology of Mental Illness Laboratory on the main campus.

Schizophrenia usually develops between the ages of 18 and 35, and costs the nation about $5 billion a year in pharmaceuticals. Other types of severe mental illness examined in this study, such as bipolar disorder, similarly place a substantial economic burden on the government and families.

Scientists suspect that genetic abnormalities interact with environmental risk factors to trigger diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Many believe that autism, like schizophrenia, may be an umbrella term that describes a range of disorders. Schizophrenia has previously been linked to early visual-processing abnormalities, but very little is understood about the process.

Specifically, some people with schizophrenia appear to have unique reactions in the brain to diffuse red light, the longest visible wavelength on the light spectrum.

“Is the unique processing of red light related to a particular underlying cause of severe mental illness? That’s what we’re trying to better understand, including why and how?” Bedwell said.

The most effective current treatment for schizophrenia involves antipsychotic medication, which only provides substantial relief of some symptoms in about 2/3 of patients, and often includes serious side effects such as muscle problems. There is a pressing need to develop more effective treatments for severe mental illness.

Bedwell and his team believe that the way someone’s visual system responds to red light could be tied to specific mental illness symptoms, and if scientists can figure out how the connections works, then customized treatment could be developed to be more effective and have fewer side effects. In his study, individuals diagnosed with a severe mental illness go through vision tests while recording brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). The data collected is expected to give the team insight into how the link works.

“The results from this study could have a strong potential to uncover new severe mental-illness subtypes, thereby facilitating the search for more effective treatments and prevention programs,” he said.

Bedwell is seeking individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, or any history of repeatedly hearing or seeing things that are not present in reality (while awake and not under the influence of drugs). Candidates must be between 21 to 55 years old. Cash compensation is available for those who meet the requirements and complete a confidential psychological interview and some tests of vision while EEG brain activity is recorded. For more information contact the lab at 407-823-4386 or pomilrsch@gmail.com .

Bedwell is part of the clinical psychology Ph.D. program in the Department of Psychology at UCF. He’s published numerous studies about schizophrenia and has a primary focus on the psychophysiological aspects of a broad range of mental health disorders thought to relate to schizophrenia, including bipolar disorder.

He joined UCF in 2004 after completing his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Georgia, with a predoctoral clinical internship at the Medical University of South Carolina/Department of Veterans Affairs Consortium in Charleston, S.C. Prior to his graduate studies, Bedwell received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from James Madison University and then worked for several years in the child psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, conducting research on childhood-onset schizophrenia.

When not teaching, mentoring students, or conducting research, Bedwell can be found relaxing with his family or playing guitar with the rock band Sublimation, which is made up of fellow professors at UCF.