Schizophrenia Tied to Brain Changes in Teens
> 7/9/2008 4:36:39 PM

Normal brain changes that occur during adolescence may play a role in the development of schizophrenia, new research from the July issue of Molecular Psychiatry suggests. As teens move toward adulthood, their bodies reduce connections between brain cells, but this healthy process may malfunction in some teens and young adults, causing excessive brain tissue loss that has been associated with schizophrenia.

The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Melbourne and the University of California at Los Angeles, involved 16 teens and young adults, aged 17 through 30, who had just experienced their first episode of schizophrenia. Over the course of two years, the researchers used brain imagining technology to compare the neural development of schizophrenic subjects to that of 14 control subjects. While the expected brain changes began in both groups at around the same time and in the same brain regions, these changes occurred more rapidly in schizophrenic subjects and affected a larger area of the brain overall. The prefrontal and parietal lobes were especially altered. The loss of neural connections in these two areas may hold important implications as both brain areas are involved with cognitive functions that schizophrenia disrupts, including judgement, memory, and the processing of sensory information. By the study’s end, subjects with schizophrenia had 1.6 times as much tissue loss as their healthy counterparts

In previous work, the researchers identified a genetic variation involved in neural connectivity that, when not working properly, may cause the brain changes seen in schizophrenic subjects. Through this current study, they demonstrate that these alterations occur in adolescence, when the brain is already paring down its neural connections and when the symptoms of schizophrenia tend to occur for the first time. Because the pattern of change seen in schizophrenic subjects resembled that of controls, the researchers theorize that another factor might alter this biological process in some teens, causing a higher rate of brain tissue loss.

While these results seem promising, the study was small and further research should be conducted to further clarify the role played by neural connections. These changes may have a direct influence on the onset of schizophrenia, but they might also occur as a result of the disorder. Researchers should continue to investigate the neural factors that contribute to this devastating mental illness, and their efforts may offer insight into ways of preventing or slowing down abnormal processes within the brain. As we learn more about the mechanisms that underlie schizophrenia, we will be better prepared to treat it.

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