Brain-Shape Abnormality Tied to Schizophrenia
> 2/29/2008 1:43:05 PM

The relatives of schizophrenics, even those raised in another household, are more likely to develop schizophrenia, a fact that strongly suggests at least some genetic component to the disease. Even when relatives do not develop schizophrenia, behavioral differences have been observed. Not too long ago, we discussed a study in which judges blindly evaluated the artwork of control and schizophrenic relative groups, and the latter received much higher scores for creativity. But it was not known exactly what caused this behavioral difference, nor whether a biological difference could be detected. This past December though, a rather glaring difference in the thalamus has emerged in a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The thalamus is a walnut-sized region of the brain that relays all of the senses (except smell) to the cerebral cortex. As schizophrenics frequently display sensory distortions, and prior research has indicated that they have abnormal thalamus volume averages, that region has been the target of increasing scrutiny. Researchers from Washington University recently took MRI scans of four subject groups: schizophrenics, non-psychotic siblings of schizophrenics, control subjects, and non-psychotic siblings of control subjects. The control subjects and their siblings showed little deviation from the ideal thalamus shape. The schizophrenics and their siblings had specific deformations of the inward surface of the anterior and posterior thalamus.

The deformation was less prominent in the siblings of schizophrenics than in the schizophrenics themselves, but it was still quite noticeable. This offers evidence that schizophrenia stems at least in part from a heritable abnormality in brain structure. In addition to furthering our understanding of this sometimes devastating disorder, this study may lead to more accurate and earlier diagnoses. The researchers speculate that thalamus shape could be a valuable way to determine the risk of inheriting not just abnormal brain structure but also externally observable symptoms such as disorganized thinking and hallucinations. This promising possibility will hinge upon whether thalamus structure can be definitively tied to symptoms, a question that may soon be answered by several studies already galvanized by this latest report from Washington University.

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