Although researchers have suspected that schizophrenia is linked to a dysfunctional immune system, a lack of evidence has kept away research funding that would allow the testing of immune-system suppressing drugs on schizophrenic patients.
Thanks to new research that clearly demonstrates that the brains of people with schizophrenia may be under immune system attack, however, scientists may be getting the go-ahead.
“In order to expose people to dangerous treatments — and immunosuppressive drugs do carry risks — you need serious evidence to suggest those drugs may be useful in treating the condition,” said Ian Hickie, M.D., executive director of Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Research Institute.
“In the past, researchers have had great difficulty convincing an ethics committee that this is a treatment strategy for schizophrenia.”
The new study, led by the Schizophrenia Research Institute, has shown immune cells in a key brain region affected by the disorder — once thought to be inactive — are in fact causing inflammation and damage.
“This, in combination with evidence we already have from existing studies, adds to the argument from researchers that it is now reasonable to trial immunosuppressants on schizophrenia patients,” Hickie said.
This research that will lead to more effective treatment options with the potential to significantly improve a sufferer’s quality of life will now be greatly accelerated, said a senior author of the study, Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Ph.D.
“The time to start further research and clinical trials is now,” she said. “We can use this information to target specific aspects of immune system involved in schizophrenia more directly.”
As part of the study, researchers analyzed an area of the brain involved in regulating emotional and social behavior — the orbitofrontal cortex — in 40 people, half with schizophrenia.
About 40 percent of those with schizophrenia had higher levels of inflammation in that section of the brain.
“The part of the brain we looked at is indeed in crisis in people with schizophrenia,” Shannon Weickert said. “This raises the possibility that this is a new root cause of the disease.”
Source: Molecular Psychiatry