Emerging research suggests children at risk of developing schizophrenia have brains that function differently than those not at risk.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina performed brain scans on children who have parents or siblings with the illness.
They discovered that these high-risk children have neural circuitry that is over active or stressed by tasks that peers with no family history of the illness seem to handle with ease.
Since the difference in brain functioning appears before neuropsychiatric symptoms, scientists believe the finding could point to early warning signs or “vulnerability markers” for schizophrenia.
“The downside is saying that anyone with a first degree relative with schizophrenia is doomed. Instead, we want to use our findings to identify those individuals with differences in brain function that indicate they are particularly vulnerable, so we can intervene to minimize that risk,” said senior study author Aysenil Belger, Ph.D.
The UNC study is published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, and is one of the first to look for alterations in brain activity associated with mental illness in individuals as young as nine years of age. Individuals who have a first degree family member with schizophrenia have an 8- 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.
Experts say some of the earliest signs of schizophrenia are a decline in verbal memory, IQ and other mental functions; symptoms researchers believe stem from an inefficiency in cortical processing, the brain’s waning ability to tackle complex tasks.
In the study, Belger and her colleagues sought to identify what if any functional changes occur in the brains of adolescents at high risk of developing schizophrenia.
She performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on 42 children and adolescents ages 9 to 18, half of whom had relatives with schizophrenia and half of whom did not. Study participants each spent 1-1/2 hours playing a game where they had to identify a specific image — a simple circle — out of a lineup of emotionally evocative images, such as cute or scary animals.
At the same time, the MRI machine scanned for changes in brain activity associated with each target detection task.
Belger found that the circuitry involved in emotion and higher-order decision making 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,” she said. “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 also investigating if stress may change the 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.
“It may be as simple as understanding that people are different in how they cope with stress,” Belger said. “Teaching strategies to handle stress could make these individuals less vulnerable to not just schizophrenia but also other neuropsychiatric disorders.”