Schizophrenia continues to be one of the lesser understood disorders of brain development. It is generally believed to involve both genetic and environmental influence and shares many risk factors with other brain disorders such as autism and intellectual disability. However, determining the exact path schizophrenia follows is difficult, to say the least.
In an August 2018 study, researchers gathered enough data to describe brain development patterns associated with schizophrenia. Specifically, results indicated that parts of the brain’s cortex, which is the outermost layer of neural tissue in the brain, develop differently in people diagnosed with schizophrenia.
However, in an interesting study published December 2018 in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers discovered some encouraging news about what happens to the brain in the period immediately following the onset of schizophrenia. Using functional MRI brain imaging they determined that during the first one to two years following diagnosis, the brain, in most young patients, continues to follow its normal developmental path. There is no deterioration or disruption of the developmental process. This is exciting news because schizophrenia typically manifests during adolescence or young adulthood – crucial periods in the maturation of the brain – and now there appears to be the potential of therapy to take advantage of brain plasticity in helping patients overcome cognitive deficits.
The research team was led by Foundation Scientific Council member Cameron S. Carter, MD., of the University of California, Davis, and they focused on cognitive control. Cognitive control refers to brain functions that allow information processing and behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment depending on a person’s current goals, rather than remaining rigid and inflexible. Impairments in cognitive control are associated with deficits in attention, memory, language comprehension and emotional processing, and have long been observed in people with schizophrenia.
In the study, a group of 180 young participants aged 12 to 25 were assessed. Eighty-seven of these participants had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Those with schizophrenia did not perform as well as the healthy controls of the same age in tasks reflecting cognitive control. However, both groups (those with schizophrenia and those without) showed improvements when followed up over the next two years, reflecting the fact that all the participants’ brains continued to develop. The researchers concluded that those with schizophrenia continue to benefit from ongoing brain maturation.
Our insights and understanding of schizophrenia continues to evolve as cutting-edge research leads us in new directions. For example, a recent study overturned the theory that schizophrenia manifests because of communication issues in only the prefrontal and temporal lobes. Instead, researchers found that the disease affects neural wiring in all areas of the brain. Said Sinead Kelly, co-lead author of the study, “We can definitively say for the first time that schizophrenia is a disorder where white matter wiring is frayed throughout the brain.”
Back to our main study above. The research team suggests that, given their discovery, various interventions should be examined. Support in the form of cognitive training, psychotherapy, medication and supported education and employment might help with cognitive control deficits.
As more research is conducted on the brain in regards to schizophrenia, we can expect different, and hopefully better, treatments to evolve as well.