As much as a decade before most schizophrenia patients begin showing obvious symptoms, brain scans may be able to detect signs of the disease, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina.
Individuals who have a parent or sibling with schizophrenia are about 10 times more likely to develop the disease than those who do not. Symptoms, which typically begin in the late teens to mid-20s, include declines in memory, intelligence and other brain functions. More advanced symptoms include paranoid beliefs and hallucinations.
For the study, researchers looked at the brain scans of 42 children, some as young as 9, who had close relatives with schizophrenia.
The findings showed that many of the children had areas of the brain that were “hyper-activated” in response to emotional stimulation and tasks that required decision-making, said lead author Aysenil Belger, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry.
“These children are trying extra hard to do something that other children are able to do without so much effort,” Belger said.
The findings could help bring about an earlier diagnosis of the brain disease and ultimately point to techniques for offsetting or minimizing disease progression, said Belger.
Potential treatments include hormone therapies, cognitive skills training and new medicines to improve brain function.
The study, published in the online journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, intentionally drew its participants from a younger age group.
“We were interested in seeing if being a first-degree family member of someone with schizophrenia meant their brains were already different,” Belger said.
The scientists watched brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the children solved problems or viewed pictures designed to trigger emotional responses.
“Puberty is a particularly important time because that’s when the brain changes tremendously, both functionally and structurally,” Belger said.
“These changes are accompanied by cognitive and emotional changes, but they don’t all happen at the same pace. The emotional area tends to develop faster than the decision-making areas. That’s why teenagers are very emotional and impulsive.
“For most people, this imbalance is temporary — when puberty is over, at some point, your cognition and emotions become regulated. But for some people this doesn’t happen.”
The researchers will continue to follow the research participants over the next several years in order to learn more about brain development in at-risk youth.