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Schizophrenics likely to benefit from brain discovery and early treatment

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Schizophrenia patients could benefit from brain discovery

The discovery of brain impairment in mice could open the door to better treatment options for those suffering from schizophrenia and major depression, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

After studying rodents that have a gene associated with mental illness, neuroscientist Alexander Johnson and his research team from Michigan State University discovered a link between a specific area of the prefrontal cortex, and learning and behavioral deficits.

The finding is a significant step forward in better understanding mental illness. Although there are currently antipsychotic medications that can treat symptoms like hallucinations in schizophrenics, there are really no effective treatments for other symptoms, such as lack of motivation or anhedonia, which is an inability to experience pleasure.

"This study may well suggest that if we start targeting these brain-behavior mechanisms in people with mental illness, it may help to alleviate some of the cognitive and motivational symptoms, which to date remain largely untreated with current drug therapies," said Johnson, who also serves as assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

Schizophrenia is a disabling brain disorder that runs in families, affecting approximately 2.4 million Americans. It is marked by paranoia and hearing voices that aren't there, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In the MSU study, which included co-investigators Hanna Jaaro-Peled, Akira Sawa and Michela Gallagher from Johns Hopkins University, researchers conducted a series of experiments with two groups of mice: 1) those with the gene associated with mental illness; and 2) those without the gene (the control group).

In one experiment testing cognitive functioning, the mice were offered tasty food if they responded on one side of a conditioning box. Then, after repeated feedings, the food was switched to the other side of the box, resulting in the mice with the mental illness gene having much more difficulty learning to adapt to the new side.

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In another experiment testing motivation, the mice had to respond with increasing frequency each time they wanted food. By the end of the three-hour experiment, all mice with the mental illness gene stopped responding when they wanted food, whereas half of the control group continued on.

According to Johnson, these deficiencies may have to do with a problem in an area of the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the orbitofrontal cortex). He suggests that further research should target this area.

People with schizophrenia can develop a split personality, rendering them unable to distinguish their own thoughts and ideas from reality. The problem with treatment, says Dr. Ruchi Sharma, a psychiatrist from India, is that most patients and their family members refuse to believe that there’s something wrong with the patient's brain.

"Many people try to look for alternative therapies to cure their loved ones," she said.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the prevalence of schizophrenia in India is about three per 1,000 individuals. It is most often diagnosed between the ages of 15-35, and men and women are equally affected.

A Delhi-based medical rehabilitation expert, Divya Pal Singh, stressed the importance of avoiding alternative therapies for a patient's well-being.

"Some patients land in the net of quacks or black magicians who promise all kinds of magic remedies, but there is no alternative to modern medical therapies, including those for schizophrenia," Divya Pal Singh said.

Although the exact cause of schizophrenia remains unknown, most experts believe it is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that make people more vulnerable to developing schizophrenia.

SOURCE: Michigan State University. "Schizophrenics Likely To Benefit From Brain Discovery" (July 17, 2013)