Dr. Deanna Barch at the Intersection of Clinical and Cognitive Science

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Dr. Deanna Barch is the Gregory B Couch Professor of Psychiatry, a Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences, and a Professor of Psychiatry, plus the Chairperson to the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University of St. Louis, MO — which means I’m kind of amazed and delighted that she was able to take a few moments to speak with me!

Here Dr. Barch introduces herself:

Dr. Barch’s research is incredibly interdisciplinary. She is a clinical Psychologist and devotes her efforts to studying Schizophrenia, Depression, and other psychological disorders, but the perspective she has adopted since graduate school is highly mechanistic. She studies the interplay of cognitive and affective systems as they are affected and produce these psychological disorders, incorporating an understanding of working memory and information processing, with neuroimaging and computational modeling.  The result is a broad-based cognitive-neuroscience perspective on the mechanisms and functional properties of psychological disorders.  Hence, the emphasis she has adopted allows for an analysis of cause and systematic properties, and is about the decrements produced by the disorder and how those decrements may manifest in our neural architecture and systems.

Easy right? Just a systematic approach to understanding the very nature of a person, from the cognitive and emotional processes as they are rooted in physiology. You know, simple, fundamental issues that capture the very essence of what it means to be human — and the issues that arise when those systems function at extremes and/or dysfunction. That’s all. Oh, and just a straightforward expertise of clinical psychology and disorders, cognitive processes, neuroscience and neuroimaging, computational modeling, and, obviously, the mathematics and physics/engineering relating to the computation and analysis of all of those things.   Just that. And some other stuff, but mostly just that.

So how does one become a clinical-cognitive-neuroscience-computational modeler? As it happens, I asked her! Here are some of her thoughts about her early life and influences. Dr. Barlow  be the endowed Gregory Couch chair***   in Psychiatry, the departmental chairperson to a thriving department, with professorial appointments to two departments now, but in her early life Deanna was very active.

Here she describes some of her activities and many interests:

It’s a little bit of everything,  right? From rifles to debate; wrestle-ette to student council president. Peer advising and the active support of, well, everything she came across. And working — she helped to support her life and her family by scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins and serving food and activities at a retirement home. Moreover, she found meaningful experience working as a peer counselor and the start of her lifelong interest in Psychology.

With all of that maybe it’s not surprising that she decided to go to college, but it is worth taking a moment of reflection about this. While Dr. Barch is clearly a tremendous intellect and esteemed professor now, and was an active and engaged teen, she is a first-generation college student. There was a lot for her to figure out and a lot of learning and development for her to take on in  her early days as a student. She started with a goal for one career (school counselor) and ended up moving in a new direction.

She opened that pathway through to her success with her dedication, ability, and perseverance. While we spoke, Dr. Barch frequently lauded the excellent mentorship and encouragement she experienced throughout her academic career. She forged great relationships with mentors and colleagues, she dedicated herself and learned about, well, just about every major intellectual topic she came across, and used that to define her current niche.

There are several critical experiences she described. To give a sense of her experience and development, here is an excerpt of her describing the initial experiences she had working with schizophrenics. As an undergraduate student contributed as a research assistant to the very well-respected  Dr. Lauren Alloy (now at Temple University). Dr. Alloy recommended her to an experimental program in the Chicago community to provide support to people with schizophrenia, bipolar, borderline, and other disorders who needed support.

This was a poignant experience for her, and it comes through very clearly in her words:


How to process that? She was sensitive to this person and saw herself and the many opportunities ahead of her in stark contrast to that experienced by this person at the onset of a chronic struggle against his own mental illness.  She and this patient were both young, they were both poised to live amazing lives. She would continue on this path towards her goals, and was empathetic to this young person, so much like her, but who would now be struggling against this illness, and the complex socio-cognitive issues that it would entail for the rest of his life.

Also, she adds an important side note on her own development. There are often two formative experiences that one needs to find: those that help you figure out what you like (woo-hoo! This is fascinating!! I need to keep  doing this stuff!!!) and figure out what you DON’T like (uh-oh, this is not where I will thrive, this is not my place in the world). In this experience Deanna found her own place in Psychology, where she would contribute, and also the part that was not right for her.

This experience helped to shape her understanding of the complexity and real struggles of schizophrenia, was her first direct and personal exposure to the disorder, and set her on the path moving forward to study it. And study it she did:  Dr. Barch completed her doctorate at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana with Dr. Howard Berenbaum (a very impressive clinical researcher) and then a post-doc and internship at the Western Psychiatric Institute in association with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon  University with Dr. Jonathon Cohen (another impressive figure who has an MD-PhD, and the approach of an experimental Psychologist).  These influences were seminal: with Dr. Berenbaum she began to adopt a transdiagnostic approach — seeking common cause and pervasive influences from the cognitive and affective systems that seemed to be producing the profound disorders in her clinical populations — with a continuing emphasis on schizophrenia. With Dr. Cohen she began to go to the very root of this common cause hypothesis by modeling and imaging the underlying neural circuitry for the disorders. In her formative training, Dr. Barch developed a broad, cross-disciplinary approach to understand the broad and pervasive issues she studied.

I am going to rush through her life very rapidly. We can speed through a transformative doctoral and post-doctoral experience, and to glibly slide past the onset of a career that contributed directly to the major clinical and cognitive-neuroscience developments that helped define Washington University for the last  20 years. I need to do this to emphasize part of the lasting influence of Dr. Barch. With the background she’s had, and the openness to reach across disciplines/sub-disciplines, that put her in great  position for some of her more recent efforts that are helping to reshape Psychology. Dr. Barch had participated in a collaborative effort: MATRICS (Measurement and Treatment Research to Improve Cognition in Schizophrenia  – somebody was good with acronyms!) which seeded her leadership in the more current: CNTRICS (Cognitive Neuroscience Treatment Research to Improve Cognition in Schizophrenia).

Dr. Barch describes some of her work with CNTRICS:

But, wait, let’s not stop there. Yes CNTRICS is a major collaborative research initiative. Moreover, it bridges animal research to cognitive neuroscience to clinical studies in order to improve assessments and applications in schizophrenia. There is also the  Connectome Project to which Dr. Barch is an important contributor, and co-PI on the developmental part of the project. The Connectome project is a massive undertaking to collate neuro data from across the world in order to map all of the structural and functional connection that make up the neural architecture of the brain. Note the reference she threw on to the ABCD project — that is another major undertaking on Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD, get it?  Fun with acronyms in science!)

Here’s my favorite part: go there now and you to can explore the brain, piggy backing on all of the neuroscience data they’ve been amalgamating: http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/

Come on. You know you want to go surf through the brain and its windy-twisty connections!

Well, that’s a little glimpse into the life and work of Dr. Barch. She does so much that I’m excited to give you all a fuller picture of her — but that’ll have to wait for the book…


Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Barch:

Barch, D. M. (2005). The cognitive neuroscience of schizophreniaAnnual Reviews Clinical Psychology1, 321-353.

Barch, D. M., Braver, T. S., Akbudak, E., Conturo, T., Ollinger, J., & Snyder, A. (2001). Anterior cingulate cortex and response conflict: effects of response modality and processing domain. Cerebral Cortex11(9), 837-848.

Barch, D. M., Braver, T. S., Nystrom, L. E., Forman, S. D., Noll, D. C., & Cohen, J. D. (1997). Dissociating working memory from task difficulty in human prefrontal cortexNeuropsychologia35(10), 1373-1380.

Barch, D. M., Carter, C. S., Braver, T. S., Sabb, F. W., MacDonald, A., Noll, D. C., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). Selective deficits in prefrontal cortex function in medication-naive patients with schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry58(3), 280-288.

Barch, D. M., & Ceaser, A. (2012). Cognition in schizophrenia: Core psychological and neural mechanismsTrends in Cognitive Sciences16(1), 27-34.

Braver, T. S., & Barch, D. M. (2002). A theory of cognitive control, aging cognition, and neuromodulationNeuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews26(7), 809-817.

Braver, T. S., Barch, D. M., & Cohen, J. D. (1999). Cognition and control in schizophrenia: a computational model of dopamine and prefrontal functionBiological Psychiatry46(3), 312-328.

Carter, C. S., Braver, T. S., Barch, D. M., Botvinick, M. M., Noll, D., & Cohen, J. D. (1998). Anterior cingulate cortex, error detection, and the online monitoring of performanceScience280(5364), 747-749.

(*Pictured is Dr. Deanna Barch in her office in the Psychology Building at Washington University in St. Louis — and maybe a little bit in Chesterfield).

(*** Don’t you just love how they have the “Endowed Couch chair”  it seems like such a comforting appointment!)

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