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An alumnus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology department is heading new research that could revolutionize the treatment of schizophrenia in the U.S., according to a UNL news release. 

David Penn, a 1994 graduate, first worked with schizophrenia patients as a doctoral student at UNL in the early ‘90s and, before earning his doctoral degree, conducted research at state psychiatric hospital, Lincoln Regional Center. 

Penn was a critical participant in a recent landmark study that found significantly better results for schizophrenia patients who receive psychotherapy as well as drug treatment, particularly if treatment ensues immediately after a patient’s first psychotic episode, according to the release. Penn’s study was recently acknowledged as a “game-changer” in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

“The individual psychotherapy that (Penn) designed for the national multi-site study of early intervention is the product of more than a decade of work he began at UNL,” said Will Spaulding, a psychology professor at UNL who was Penn’s dissertation adviser.

Spaulding said that when Penn joined the Serious Mental Health Research Group at UNL, the group was focused on elements of cognition: memory, attention and perception. 

“(Penn) saw beyond that early work and was the first ever to propose, in a published journal article, that our focus should be social cognition, the more complex levels unique to humans,” Spaulding said in the release.

When the National Institute of Mental Health standardized assessment of cognitive impairment in schizophrenia in the early 2000s Penn’s work was heavily influential. 

“When the time came to design a new approach to treatment, early in the course of the illness, David was the go-to guy,” Spaulding said.

Penn said the approach is intended to focus less on symptoms and more on helping patients build upon their strengths.

“We can’t say that we’ve cured schizophrenia,” Penn said in the release. “But we’re going to make a difference in individuals’ quality of life and reduce the likelihood that schizophrenia becomes a chronic illness. It gives individuals a better chance of leading more productive lives in the future.”

Penn is now the director of psychological services at the Outreach and Support Intervention Services program, a clinic at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for patients experiencing a first psychotic episode. According to the release, he has devoted much of his career to working with those with schizophrenia and credits UNL psychology faculty members including Spaulding, Mary Sullivan and Debra Hope for influencing the direction of his career.