Study Shows Children at Risk for Schizophrenia have Different Brain Functions
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Research from the University of North Carolina has shown that children at risk of developing schizophrenia have brains that function differently than those not at risk. Brain scans of children who have parents or siblings with the illness reveal a neural circuitry that is hyperactivated or stressed by tasks that peers with no family history of the illness seem to handle with ease. Because these differences in brain functioning appear before neuropsychiatric symptoms such as trouble focusing, paranoid beliefs, or hallucinations, the scientists believe that the finding could point to early warning signs or “vulnerability markers” for schizophrenia. Individuals who have a first-degree family member with schizophrenia have an 8-fold to 12-fold increased risk of developing the disease. However, there is no way of knowing for certain who will become schizophrenic until symptoms arise and a diagnosis is reached. Some of the earliest signs of schizophrenia are a decline in verbal memory, IQ, and other mental functions, which researchers believe stem from an inefficiency in cortical processing – the brain’s waning ability to tackle complex tasks. The study found circuitry involved in emotion and higher order decisionmaking was hyperactivated in individuals with a family history of schizophrenia, suggesting that the task was stressing out these areas of the brain in the study subjects. “This finding shows that these regions are not activating normally,” said senior study author Aysenil Belger, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine. “We think that this hyperactivation eventually damages these specific areas in the brain to the point that they become hypoactivated in patients, meaning that when the brain is asked to go into high gear it no longer can.” Belger is currently exploring what kind of role stress plays in the changing mental capacity of adolescents at high risk of developing schizophrenia. Though only a fraction of these individuals will be diagnosed with schizophrenia, Belger thinks it is important to pinpoint the most vulnerable people early to explore interventions that may stave off the mental illness. The U.S. remains on track to have the most reported pertussis cases since 1959, with more than 32,000 cases already reported along with 16 deaths, the majority of which are in infants.