Interconnected brain areas that use split-second timing to interpret new information suffer a communication breakdown in people with schizophrenia, a new study suggests.

The finding hinges on measurements of some brain waves that arise from synchronized activity in large clusters of neurons.

In healthy adults listening to two different tones in a sequence, for example, these aligned brain waves occur about one-tenth of a second after a person first recognizes the tones’ difference, say neuroscientist Leanne M. Williams of Westmead (Australia) Hospital and her colleagues. The synchronized electrical outbursts appear most prominently in the frontal brain, a region regarded as a key part of a network that interprets novel perceptions against a background of prior knowledge.

In contrast, people diagnosed with their first bout of schizophrenia display a decline in neural synchrony, especially in the frontal brain, in the fraction of a second after discerning a particular tone, Williams’ team reports in the March American Journal of Psychiatry. Individuals with schizophrenia exhibit unusually low levels of synchronized neural firing to begin with, the researchers note.

If confirmed in further work, these findings raise the likelihood that “a breakdown in the synchrony of distributed neural networks is a marker for the onset of schizophrenia,” the researchers conclude.