A new study suggests brain scans could be used to predict the onset of schizophrenia in young people with a family history of the disease.

University of Edinburgh researchers discovered the brains of people who later develop schizophrenia shrink at an accelerated rate before they first become ill.

Schizophrenia is a condition characterized by delusions and hallucinations that affects 1 in every 100 people – it is associated with a reduction in brain tissue but the timing of these changes has, until now, been unclear.

The study examined people at high risk of schizophrenia who had two close relatives with the disorder and were between 16 and 25 at the beginning of the study.

This is the first time that such changes in brain size have been found in people at high risk of schizophrenia before they develop any symptoms. Unlike previous studies, these changes cannot be due to medication as all of the people in the study were un-medicated when they took part.

In healthy people, the brain begins to slowly shrink from early adulthood onwards.

It is known that accelerated brain shrinkage occurs in people with bipolar disorder (or manic-depression) and schizophrenia, but until now it was not known whether these changes occurred before people became unwell.

Researchers say that scans could be used to identify shrinkage of the brain in people at high risk of schizophrenia and may help doctors to diagnose the condition and start treatment at an earlier stage or even before illness first appears.

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, shows that the loss of brain tissue is concentrated in areas of the brain associated with personality, decision-making and social behavior.

Lead author Dr. Andrew McIntosh, of the Division of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This study represents the culmination of more than 10-years of work and is a significant step to understanding the origins of schizophrenia years before the onset of disability and medical treatment.”

The team analyzed brain scans of 146 people with a family history of schizophrenia – but who had not yet experienced any symptoms – and compared them to scans of 36 people with no such risk.

The scans were taken every 18 months over a 10-year period.

Source: University of Edinburgh