Early Signs of Schizophrenia in Infant Brains
Researchers have been able to detect what they believe may be the early signs of schizophrenia in the brains of infants only a few weeks old. If this is true, such early detection would be a breakthrough, as most cases of schizophrenia are not detected until an individual begins to experience symptoms as a teenager or young adult.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 2.4 million adults in the United States, or about 1.1 percent of the adult population, have schizophrenia. The mental condition typically first appears in men in their late teens or early twenties, while women are mostly first affected in their twenties or early thirties.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Columbia University found evidence that abnormalities in the brains associated with the mental disorder are detectable in babies who are only a few weeks old. The investigators used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound to examine brain development in 26 infants whose mothers had schizophrenia. Having a first-degree relative with schizophrenia increases a person’s risk of getting the disease to one in ten.
The researchers noted that among male babies, the high-risk infants had larger brains and larger fluid-filled spaces in the brain known as lateral ventricles than infants whose mothers did not have schizophrenia. Lead author John H. Gilmore, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the UNC Schizophrenia Research Center, noted that their finding “allows us to start thinking about how we can identify kids at risk for schizophrenia very early and whether there are things that we can do very early on to lessen the risk.”
The authors speculate whether an enlarged brain is an early indicator of schizophrenia in boys. They did not find a difference in brain size among girls in their study. However, their finding fits what is known about schizophrenia, which is that it is more common and usually more severe in males. It is already known that a larger brain in infants is associated with autism.
Gilmore points out that their discovery is “just the very beginning. We’re following these children through childhood.” He and his team will continue to measure the children’s brains and monitor their brain development, including language skills, memory development, and motor abilities.
This study raises the possibility that clinicians will be able to detect the early signs of schizophrenia in the brains of infants. Such early detection could lead the way for new ways to prevent the disease in children who are at high risk for schizophrenia.
National Institute of Mental Health
University of North Carolina, news release, June 21, 2010