Researchers have identified key differences in how the brain develops in teens with schizophrenia compared to their healthy siblings, a new study shows.
They found that healthy siblings of schizophrenia patients showed similar brain abnormalities early on, but that these problems tended to normalize or “catch up” to those of normally developing adolescents by the age of 16.
The findings open the possibility for new treatment options for teens who suffer with this debilitating illness.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers from the University of Melbourne and the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C., mapped the brains of 109 young people with childhood-onset schizophrenia (COS) between the ages of 12 to 24.
They compared these images with scans of the patients’ brothers and sisters without COS to see if similar brain changes took place over time.
They found that siblings without COS showed similar delays in brain connectivity early on, but that these connections tended to normalize to those of normally developing adolescents.
Lead researcher Dr. Andrew Zalesky is a University of Melbourne electrical engineer who lends his expertise to understanding the brain’s wiring. He divides his time between the Faculties of Medicine and Engineering at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre.
Zalesky said the ability of the siblings to catch up and develop important brain circuitry means there is a degree of resilience to their risk for schizophrenia.
“We’ve looked at the development of brain networks over the adolescent period, from childhood to early adulthood. Abnormalities detected early in the unaffected children normalize by age 16,” Zalesky said.
The greatest risk for schizophrenia is family history, but the majority of siblings of schizophrenia patients remain unaffected.
“So why are these brothers and sisters able to overcome the risk? Looking for these biological factors that protect a person from developing schizophrenia opens up a new direction in the search for treatments,” said Zalesky.
Co-author Dr. Christos Pantelis heads the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre at the University of Melbourne. He treats patients with severe forms of schizophrenia at NorthWestern Mental Health.
He said looking into the biological, social and psychological protective factors that can improve resilience to mental disorders may lead to new types of treatments.
“New generation medications can help young patients manage their symptoms, but can have significant side effects. Our work has the potential to open up avenues towards earlier intervention with fewer side-effects that improve a child’s resilience to becoming ill,” said Pantelis.
“This is an interesting new direction, as it suggests the search for targeted psychiatric treatments for schizophrenia and psychosis requires following young people over time.”
The findings are published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Source: University of Melbourne