Signs of schizophrenia may be present in the brain from birth.
Research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently discovered abnormalities commonly associated with schizophrenia in the brains of babies who are at high risk for developing the illness later in life.
Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness with symptoms such as delusions (mistaken beliefs), hallucinations, and disorganized behavior. Up to one percent of the population is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Treatment includes medications and therapy. There is no known single cause, but genetics, as well as chemical and structural changes in the brain may contribute to the development of the illness.
Men are more commonly affected by schizophrenia, and the illness often presents earlier in men and with more severe symptoms.
Schizophrenia does not usually present until late teens or early adulthood, although in recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the development of symptoms in childhood. Diagnosis in childhood is complicated as the behavior of children with schizophrenia may differ from adults with the illness.
Schizoaffective disorder shares symptoms of both schizophrenia and mood disorders such as bipolar disorder or major depression. Schizoaffective disorder is poorly understood, but is thought to be related to schizophrenia.
Prior research has found that the brains of schizophrenic patients, compared to individuals without the disease, have larger lateral ventricles. The lateral ventricles are fluid-filled areas within the brain. When the lateral ventricles are enlarged, and the brain occupies the same space, then the overall size of the brain can be decreased.
Dr. John Gilmore and his research team at the Silvio O. Conte Center for the Neuroscience of Mental Disorders examined 26 newborn children of mothers with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder and 26 newborns of mothers with no psychiatric illness. Up to 10 percent of children born to schizophrenic mothers will develop schizophrenia.
Gilmore examined prenatal ultrasounds and brain MRIs obtained shortly after birth for each group of babies, obtaining precise measurements of various ventricles and other brain structures.
On the prenatal ultrasounds, there was no difference seen between the two groups of babies.
However, after birth, compared to the babies of mothers with no psychiatric illness, the at-risk babies on average had larger lateral ventricles, and overall larger brain size.
Further analysis revealed that while the female babies’ brains on average were similar, the at-risk boys’ brains were significantly larger than the brains of the boys not at risk, which is consistent with prior knowledge that males are more severely affected.
Brain abnormalities do not inevitably mean these children will go on to develop schizophrenia. Similar abnormalities have been seen in unaffected adult relatives of schizophrenic patients.
These findings imply that signs of schizophrenia, in men at least, may be present as early as birth, potentially allowing for early diagnosis and intervention. Dr Gilmore and his team plan to follow these children to adulthood.
Dr. Gilmore’s results will be published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Source: American Journal of Psychiatry