Q&As

He Researched Schizophrenia. Then He Was Diagnosed With It.

Brandon Chuang was just 22 when he began researching schizophrenia at U.C. Berkley. Soon, his studies were more personally relevant than he ever imagined.

In 2011, not long after starting a job as a schizophrenia researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, 22-year-old Brandon Chuang began to undergo a severe personality change.

First, it was trouble concentrating. Then came conspiracy spotting. He became convinced that his computer had been hacked by a colleague. Sensing romantic interest where none existed, he attempted to kiss two women at his lab.

At the urging of his boss, Dr. Josh Wooley, a schizophrenia expert, Chuang sought medical help. He was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and prescribed some antidepressants and antipsychotics. But that was hardly the end of it.

The turning point came one night when Chuang, for no reason at all, attacked his brother while watching a Raiders game at their parents’ house. He was arrested, and institutionalized for a week. “At that time I thought, ‘Wow something is actually wrong with me,” Chuang, now 30, recalls.

In America, around 3.5 million individuals have schizophrenia, according to SARDAA, a U.S.-based advocacy group. Three-quarters of them develop it between the ages of 16 and 25. Unlike Chuang, about forty percent of sufferers never receive treatment.  There is a spectrum of severity but symptoms generally include delusions, hallucinations, impaired speech and erratic behavior.

But schizophrenia doesn’t have to derail your life, as Chuang has proven. He has since bounced back after his diagnosis, beginning a six-year PhD program in clinical psychology at Berkeley focused on schizophrenia. Chuang wants to not only beat his illness, but also advocate for other people with schizophrenia, which is why–working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness—Chuang has talked about his experience in front of groups across the country. He also volunteers with Strong 365, an advocacy organization which assists mental health patients early in their diagnoses, and performs improv which touches upon his condition.

We sat down with Chuang to learn more about life after a schizophrenia diagnosis.

As a researcher at the UCSF lab, what kind of work were you doing with schizophrenia patients?

We had a few different experiments looking at how oxytocin influences social cognition. We would give patients oxytocin, wait for half an hour, then run them through different experiments to see if oxytocin improved their abilities. We tested if they could recognize emotions in faces better. There is spatial emotional recognition and auditory emotional recognition, so we also tested if they could recognize emotions in voices better. We also looked at if could they infer other people’s mental states better. We looked at olfactory senses–with schizophrenia, people are also impaired in recognizing smells accurately.

What we found was that oxytocin had mixed effects in these areas. They were better able to infer people’s mental states. Olfactory ability improved, eye-gaze improved. That was one of the main studies that we did. Another study that we did was looking at how a family environment affects people with schizophrenia. Does oxytocin improve the caregiver relationship between the parent and adolescent? We monitored people on the younger side, under thirty, with their parents. We actually gave oxytocin to the parent to see whether it would improve the dyadic interaction between parent and child.

Had you had experience with schizophrenia patients before?

No, I had no idea what schizophrenia was really. I was oblivious to it until I started this research position.

What were your initial impressions of the condition?

I thought it was a pretty devastating disorder. You could distinguish people who had it from those who didn’t. Interactions with them were more difficult. Initiallm  I didn’t really think that I would have schizophrenia. I thought that these people were different somehow. There was some stigma involved. These people were sick, I thought. They needed help.

I didn’t want to accept that I had schizophrenia. I thought schizophrenia happened to other people, not to me.

As you began developing symptoms, what did you think was happening?

Initially, I didn’t want to accept that I had schizophrenia. I thought schizophrenia happened to other people, not to me. What I thought was happening was some biochemical imbalance in my brain. After I took the initial medications I got better and was able to go back to work. I thought I was cured so I stopped taking them. That led me to my first hospitalization, where I fought my brother. That night mind was so slow and I was in so much pain that I thought the only way to get out of it was to physically fight him

Are your memories from those psychotic states very lucid?

It’s still pretty clear in my mind. I wasn’t hallucinating. I can still picture what was going on. It was a very painful experience. I felt very hopeless. Emotionally I wasn’t feeling well, which made me interpret things differently. I didn’t know what to do. I was in so much pain I came up with different ideas as to why I was in such pain. Now I’m better able to do deal with these situations. I don’t have different delusional ideas.

Brandon Chuang studying the effects of oxytocin on the brains of people with schizophrenia.

What happened after that first hospitalization?

At the mental hospital recovery center, they’d teach you skills about how to deal with your emotions and recognize triggers that might cascade into certain unhelpful behaviors. After that training I was released. I was able to calm down a bit and better manage myself. But then, right after, something happened with my brain. I think it had something to do with the medication I was on and also the fact that I wasn’t completely recovered yet. My brain felt like it was on fire. It was sort of like a panic attack coupled with a very painful sensation. It was so bad that I had to get rushed back to the hospital. I told a nurse that I wanted to commit suicide. I asked her for medications that would kill me. I didn’t know what was going on. I was hospitalized again. They put me on another antipsychotic, which I’m on now. It helps a lot more. Ever since that incident my brain kind of feels like it’s on fire. The pain is not to the extent that it was, but I still get the feeling. Especially if I’m out and overstimulated, at a loud event like a sports game. It triggers me. It’s something I’ve had to deal with.

How do you think that your personal experience with schizophrenia impacts your scholarly work?

I can personally understand the reasoning of patients and can be more empathic in terms of why they do the things they do. When I’m reading articles I can be like, ‘Oh I can see why that is.’ I think it bolsters my curiosity into understanding why these different symptoms are involved. I’m better able to internalize what I’ve been taught. And it motivates me to come up with treatments.

When you applied to PhD programs, did you disclose your illness?

I did with half of the schools. I had received mixed feedback from advisors, with some saying that disclosing would be a bad idea because universities would be afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the workload. Others said it would be beneficial. Eventually, I got accepted into Berkeley, where I did disclose my schizophrenia diagnosis.

What are you studying?

Right now, it’s schizophrenia and looking at social and emotional processes that are involved, and concocting different ideas about how the mechanisms behind these processes are affected. My first research project I have funding for is looking at how our thoughts influence behavior, specifically how changing the way we think about something changes the way we feel about a certain scenario. One of the important things in my recovery was improv theater. That really helped with my anxiety. I wanted to translate that into my research, using how we think about different situations to help us tackle things that make us more anxious about something, like a job interview or giving a speech.

“Just because I have schizophrenia doesn’t mean I can’t go work on things that are important to me.”

How has schizophrenia impacted your career path?

It’s a very stigmatizing illness. Early on I thought it would make it so there’d be limitations on what I’d be able to accomplish. I’ve had to learn to grow out of that and be like, ‘Okay, well just because I have schizophrenia doesn’t mean I can’t go work on things that are important to me’. People who have schizophrenia have such a broad spectrum. Some are very impaired and can’t do much. Then there’s people who are still able to work and live normal lives, who are able to deal with it better.

What is your advice to others with schizophrenia who have those kinds of worries?

I would say to them to not let any kind of limitations you might think you have affect your life in or how you would approach things. Say you wanted to go into science or be an artist. Don’t let a diagnosis affect your dreams and your aspirations. Yes, having schizophrenia sucks. But it’s not something that can’t be dealt with and overcome. There will be things that are harder for you to do. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do them.