People who suffer from severe schizophrenia have very different brain networks compared to others with milder schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or no mental illness, according to new research from Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Researchers say the findings confirm mounting evidence that schizophrenia is in fact more than one brain disorder.
“Finding ways to help this particular group of people with schizophrenia is a priority as recovery is unlikely, even up to 20 years after the initial diagnosis. Social isolation, lack of work and relationships, and chronic disability are very common,” says Dr. Aristotle Voineskos, senior author on the paper and Director of the Slaight Family Centre for Youth in Transition at CAMH.
Approximately one in 100 people are diagnosed with schizophrenia.The condition is generally known for symptoms of delusions and hallucinations, which are typically treated with antipsychotic medications.
However, lack of motivation and social withdrawal, known as negative symptoms, are extremely common as well.
As of now, there is no treatment for negative symptoms, yet they have the greatest impact on a person’s daily functioning once the psychosis is under control. About one in five people with schizophrenia experience these negative symptoms in a pronounced way, said lead author Dr. Anne Wheeler, CAMH postdoctoral fellow.
The study involved magnetic resonance brain imaging (MRI) of 128 people with schizophrenia and 130 healthy individuals at two sites, and with 39 patients with bipolar disorder and 43 healthy individuals at a third site.
Bipolar patients suffer from psychotic symptoms but not negative symptoms, so these patients served as an additional comparison group.
“We found alterations in a number of relationships between brain regions among those with more severe schizophrenia compared with the other groups, including those with less severe schizophrenia,” said Voineskos.
“This provides strong evidence that schizophrenia is not just one brain disorder.”
The findings also confirmed results from previous research from his team showing changes in the white matter tissues connecting those same regions in the brain, among those with more severe schizophrenia. These impaired networks are important to the brain processes related to negative symptoms and social function that patients experience, the authors write.
Through this study, specific brain circuits can be targeted to develop new therapeutic approaches for negative symptoms and social impairment. More research is currently under way at CAMH using virtual reality technology and brain stimulation.
Their findings are published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.