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Dr. Donna Lang

Investigator, BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services Research Institute

Primary research areas 

  • Neuroimaging
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Exercise interventions in mental illness

About Donna J. Lang, Ph.D.

  • Investigator, BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services Research Institute
  • Investigator, BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute
  • Associate Professor, Department of Radiology, University of British Columbia

Dr. Lang completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia in 2002, after which she was awarded a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research fellowship in the Department of Radiology at UBC, where has been an associate professor since 2016.

Dr. Lang began investigating the morphological phenomena of schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders in 1995, when she started working with Dr. William Honer as a new graduate student in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. 

Dr. Lang’s main focus areas are psychosis, exercise and neuroplasticity, which looks at the effects of exercise on the hippocampus, as well as the Hotel Study, which examines how life circumstances, addiction, mental illness and physical illnesses related to people living with concurrent disorders. 

Brain imaging has revealed differences in the hippocampus in people with schizophrenia and psychosis. Located in the temporal lobe, the hippocampus has a major role in learning and memory. Unlike other parts of the brain, it can change with exercise. 

“With the patients we’ve looked at here in B.C., we can show that if we get them to exercise, there is an increase in hippocampal volume,” Dr. Lang says. “We believe that matches with an increase in cardiovascular capacity, and improved metabolism and general physical strength. That is reflected in better memory, mood, and sleep. All of these are very hard to treat in schizophrenia.” In the next phase of the study, Dr. Lang and the team will try to determine a patient’s risk of stroke through retinal imaging. 

“The eye is the only place in the human body where we can directly look at blood vessels that connect to the brain,” she says. “And from there, you can determine how well the rest of their cardiovascular system is functioning.”

For the Hotel Study, the researchers are collecting information from individuals for five to 10 years. “We try to understand their lives and their interactions to help explain their current living situation,” Dr. Lang says.

“There is no other study in the world that has been as comprehensive or as in-depth as this one. Even though we still don’t understand it thoroughly, our understanding here in Vancouver of the interactions between persons living with homelessness, mental illness, and addiction is unparalleled in the world. There’s nothing else that comes close to it.”

Recent publications

See Dr. Donna Lang's publications on ORCID


Kristina M. Gicas, Alex Cheng, William J. Panenka, David D. Kim, Jade C. Yau, Ric M. Procyshyn, Jacob L. Stubbs, Andrea A. Jones, Simran Bains, Allen E. Thornton, Donna J. Lang, Alexandra T. Vertinsky, Alex Rauscher, William G. Honer, Alasdair M. Barr, Differential effects of cannabis exposure during early versus later adolescence on the expression of psychosis in homeless and precariously housed adults, Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, Volume 106, 2021, 110084, ISSN 0278-5846, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2020.110084

Jones, A., Gicas, K., Mostafavi, S., Woodward, M., Leonova, O., Vila-Rodriguez, F., . . . Honer, W. (2021). Dynamic networks of psychotic symptoms in adults living in precarious housing or homelessness. Psychological Medicine, 1-11. doi:10.1017/S0033291720004444

Gicas, K., Jones, A., Thornton, A., Petersson, A., Livingston, E., Waclawik, K., . . . Honer, W. (2020). Cognitive decline and mortality in a community-based sample of homeless and precariously housed adults: 9-year prospective study. BJPsych Open, 6(2), E21. doi:10.1192/bjo.2020.3

Melissa L. Woodward, Jingxia Lin, Kristina M. Gicas, Wayne Su, Christy L.M. Hui, William G. Honer, Eric Y.H. Chen, Donna J. Lang, Medial temporal lobe cortical changes in response to exercise interventions in people with early psychosis: A randomized controlled trial, Schizophrenia Research,Volume 223,2020, Pages 87-95, ISSN 0920-9964, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.schres.2020.05.043

Alexander, P.D., Gicas, K.M., Cheng, A. et al. A comparison of regional brain volumes and white matter connectivity in subjects with stimulant induced psychosis versus schizophrenia. Psychopharmacology 236, 3385–3399 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05298-w

Alexander, P.D., Gicas, K.M., Willi, T.S. et al. A comparison of psychotic symptoms in subjects with methamphetamine versus cocaine dependence. Psychopharmacology 234, 1535–1547 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-017-4551-7

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