Brain changes during schizophrenia the key to future treatment

New research is showing that the brain of schizophrenia sufferers changes during the onset of the illness not only just before or during birth as was previously thought.

Researchers from the Mental Health Research Institute (MHRI), the University of Melbourne, and the Mental Health Service for Youth and Kids (MHSKY) believe that these findings could lead to the development of treatments that could prevent or reverse these brain changes.

The research findings were presented today (4 May) by MHRI’s Dr Dennis Velakoulis at ScienceNOW! in Melbourne.

Schizophrenia is a debilitating brain illness which affects almost one percent of the population. Symptoms include abnormal beliefs (delusions), hearing voices (hallucinations) and difficulties with motivation, socialisation and thinking.

Dr Velakoulis says that up till now the prevailing view has been that schizophrenia is caused by brain changes occurring prior to, during or shortly after birth, and that these changes remained throughout the sufferer’s life.

Much research in schizophrenia has focused on the hippocampus, a part of the brain which is involved in memory and emotion, both of which are affected by schizophrenia.

“Our research has shown that people who are at high-risk for schizophrenia but have not yet developed the illness do not have the left sided hippocampal changes which we have found in people in the early stages of illness ,” Dr Velaloulis says.

“This region of the  brain does not change until they actually begin to show symptoms of the disease.”

Dr Velakoulis believes this information provides sufferers and their families with more room for optimism.

“These findings suggest that brain changes in schizophrenia are occurring during development of the illness in early adult life,” he says. “The identification of the cause of these changes may hold the key to developing treatments to prevent or reverse the illness.”

Dr Velakoulis and the research teams headed by Associate Professor Chris Pantelis (Cognitive Neuropsychiatry Unit, MHRI) and Professor Pat McGorry (MHSKY) carried out the research using state-of-the-art brain scanning techniques to identify the timing and site of brain changes with schizophrenia.

In the largest study of its kind to-date, scans were performed on over 400 people who either had long term illness, were at the start of their illness or were yet to develop symptoms but were in a high risk group. These people were compared with scans from 200 people without schizophrenia.

One to two years after the original scans people were also scanned a second time and the research team is now hoping to confirm these findings in a larger group of people and to examine whether further changes occur with progression of the illness.

“Our preliminary results show that people with long term schizophrenia also have changes to the left side of their hippocampus, but in addition had developed changes to the right side of the hippocampus that are related directly to how long they had been ill,” Dr Velakoulis says. “If these changes are confirmed they may pave the way for new treatment which will help prevent or ameliorate the onset or progression of this illness.”

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