Oxford researchers have discovered a specific network in the brain that is the first to degenerate with age and also the most vulnerable spot for the development of schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to analyze changes in the brain structures of 484 healthy participants, ages eight to 85 years.
“Our results show that the same specific parts of the brain not only develop more slowly, but also degenerate faster than other parts,” said researcher Dr. Gwenaëlle Douaud, at Oxford University’s Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB).
“These complex regions, which combine information coming from various senses, seem to be more vulnerable than the rest of the brain to both schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, even though these two diseases have different origins and appear at very different, almost opposite, times of life.”
The researchers used a “data-driven” approach for the study. Instead of looking for a particular pattern of brain change over the lifespan in a specific location of the brain, they analyzed all the imaging data to see what patterns appeared.
In the brain’s grey matter, they found one specific network that developed later than the rest of the brain, and was the first to degenerate in older age.
This network, which doesn’t develop until late adolescence or early adulthood, is associated with both intellect and long-term memory — two mental abilities that become significantly impaired in people with schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s.
When the researchers compared the network in healthy subjects’ brains with patterns of grey matter damage in people with Alzheimer’s and people with schizophrenia, they found striking similarities between the three.
“Early doctors called schizophrenia ‘premature dementia’ but until now we had no clear evidence that the same parts of the brain might be associated with two such different diseases. This large-scale and detailed study provides an important, and previously missing, link between development, aging and disease processes in the brain,” said Hugh Perry, Ph.D., chairman of the Medical Research Council’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, which funded the work.
“It raises important issues about possible genetic and environmental factors that may occur in early life and then have lifelong consequences. The more we can find out about these very difficult disorders, the closer we will come to helping sufferers and their families.”
The study was an international collaboration between the University of Oxford neuroscience imaging team, neuroscience researchers from the University of Oslo and research clinicians from the University Hospital Basel, Imperial College London, and the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry.
Source: University of Oxford