The University of Iowa is home to a neuroscience rock star.

Nancy Andreasen, who holds the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry, is a pioneer in neuroimaging, having used MRI technology in the 1980s to show that schizophrenia is a disorder of the brain. She has written three books about the brain for the mass market, along with a dozen scholarly titles and more than 600 articles. She is the first woman to win the American Psychiatric Association’s highest award for research, and in 2000 she received the National Medal of Science at the White House.

Nearly five decades after beginning her career in scientific discovery with a medical degree from the UI, Andreasen still conducts research.

“I just love the interdisciplinary nature of what I get to do. It’s not focusing on one little thing—it’s looking at really big, broad ideas,” says Andreasen, who completed the first empirical study that identified a link between creativity and mental illness. “The development of imaging technologies was a very exciting time in my career—we could actually see the brain and measure it—and it’s been exciting ever since.”

At the UI, Andreasen used neuroimaging to detect abnormalities in the brains of people with schizophrenia, which afflicts more than 3 million Americans. Now, she and her colleagues are researching how the disease progresses and whether it’s different from brain-tissue loss in people without the disease.
 

“The goal is to find out what the mechanism is behind those brain changes and then to figure out how to attack that with medication or some other means,” Andreasen says. “Schizophrenia is a terrible disease, and we really need to have better treatments so that people with that illness can have more normal lives.”

Andreasen almost didn’t pursue a career in neuroscience. She was on the English faculty at the UI in the 1960s teaching Renaissance literature when a health scare after the birth of her first child prompted her to switch gears.

“I nearly died, and I decided that I really had to give back the life that I was given again and to try to do more for mankind,” she says. “A medical career seemed to be a good way to do that.”

Andreasen, who earned a medical degree from the UI in 1970, says she studied the brain “because it is the most interesting organ in the body” and schizophrenia, in particular, “because it’s the illness within psychiatry that has the greatest disruptions in brain function.” She didn’t shelve her interest in literature, however.

“There’s this assumption that the arts and sciences are two totally different things. But, in the best of worlds, they’re not. They talk back and forth to each other.”

Nancy Andreasen
Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry

In addition to her longitudinal research on schizophrenia, Andreasen has continued her study of creativity, in one project interviewing members of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the country’s No. 1 creative writing program. She has expanded that research to include artists and scientists.

Nancy Andreasen speaks with Judy Woodruff for this PBS NewsHour video, “Connecting strength and vulnerability of the creative brain.” WATCH>>

“Secrets of the Creative Brain,” a video published by the Aspen Institute, features a presentation by Nancy Andreasen. WATCH>>

“Is the creative process the same in the arts and sciences? Although the study is not done yet, I’ve pretty much concluded that they are not separate things. The creativity of a writer or a painter or an astrophysicist or a neuroscientist seems to have the same roots,” says Andreasen, whose research on creativity was featured in The Atlantic and on PBS NewsHour in 2014. “This diverse group of creative people also has a higher rate of mental illness. That’s important to note because being able to say ‘This collection of Nobel Prize winners and other famous people in the arts has more mental illness’ helps reduce stigma.”

Informing her work as a scientist, says Andreasen, is her education in the humanities. She studied English, history, and philosophy as an undergraduate before earning master’s and doctoral degrees in English and applying to medical school.

“There’s this assumption that the arts and sciences are two totally different things. But, in the best of worlds, they’re not. They talk back and forth to each other,” she says. “I think a background in the humanities, particularly in something historical like Renaissance lit, really helps you see the big picture, to look into the future in a way that many other people can’t. I think it’s also made me a bit more humane than some scientists. I get very upset about the way that mental illness is stigmatized. It’s cruel because these are diseases of the brain and the people who have them can’t help it.”

“She has been amazing at advancing our field in general, of making people understand that psychiatry is a problem of brain development and brain functioning, and that psychiatric disorders are not a problem that you can just snap yourself out of if you want to. They are a problem of fundamental biology in the brain.”

Hanna Stevens
UI professor of psychiatry

Hanna Stevens, UI professor of psychiatry, says Andreasen’s forward thinking and advocacy were responsible for major progress in understanding psychiatric diseases.

“Andreasen has been a champion of people with mental health problems,” says Stevens, who runs the Psychiatry and Early Neurobiological Development Lab in the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. “She has been amazing at advancing our field in general, of making people understand that psychiatry is a problem of brain development and brain functioning, and that psychiatric disorders are not a problem that you can just snap yourself out of if you want to. They are a problem of fundamental biology in the brain.”

Andreasen says she has been heavily recruited by other institutions throughout her career, but she’s had no interest in leaving the state or the university.

“Iowa is a wonderful place to live. There is so much to do here, and the people are honest and dependable,” she says. “At the University of Iowa, we all like working together. It’s very collegial. I’ve trained a lot of younger people, many of whom have stayed on here. It’s as if I’m the mother of a large family, and I get great joy seeing their careers progress. It’s a loving place to be.”

Story by Sara Epstein Moninger
Photography by Tim Schoon
Video by Clarity Guerra