Experts on schizophrenia have often pointed to the frontal and temporal region of the brain when explaining the disorder. New research from the University of Southern California however, suggests that schizophrenics have a significant disruption in brain wiring and that this disruption is present throughout the entire communication system of the brain. The research could fundamentally change the way the disease is treated.
The statistics on schizophrenia are staggering. The World Health Organization figures put the number at 21 million individuals who are affected by schizophrenia. In the United States alone, 3.5 million people are diagnosed with it, and sadly only about 50% of patients will get appropriate treatment. It's thought to be caused in part by faulty genetics, but there are environmental triggers that contribute to it as well. There are several medications to treat schizophrenia, but no known cure.
In looking at schizophrenia, it's the white matter that is the focus. White matter is the tissue where neurons are embedded, and it's crucial for it to be healthy and functional since it's the backbone of the brain's communication network. Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine wanted to challenge the long-held theory that disrupted wiring in the prefrontal, and temporal lobes of the brain is to blame for schizophrenia.
So how did they approach such an enormous task? They looked at the numbers and analyzed data from 1,963 people diagnosed with schizophrenia and then looked at data collected from 2,359 healthy people similar in age and other factors. The data compiled included people from all over the world. In addition to analyzing this information, the team at USC included imaging data from a project called Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through MetaAnalysis (ENIGMA). It's a powerhouse of MRI scans of more than 20,000 people. Scans used in the recent research were diffusion tensor MRIs which show the movement of water molecules in the brain. This kind of imaging allows researchers to see how the brain communicates and where there is a breakdown of that communication.
Sinead Kelly, co-lead author of the study and now a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School stated, "We can definitively say for the first time that schizophrenia is a disorder where white matter wiring is frayed throughout the brain. Our study will help improve the understanding of the mechanisms behind schizophrenia, a mental illness that — left untreated — often leads to unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse and even suicide. These findings could lead to the identification of biomarkers that enable researchers to test patients' response to schizophrenia treatment."
The reason the study is so significant is that many research studies only look at the frontal areas of the brain. Knowing that schizophrenia is associated with "frayed wiring" throughout the entire brain will allow future research studies to broaden the brain areas they plan to study. Neda Jahanshad, a co-lead author, is an assistant professor of Neurology at the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute and further explained, "Without this study, future research could have been misdirected. Rather than looking for genes that affect a certain ‘stretch of wiring,' scientists will now look for genes that affect the brain's entire communication infrastructure."
The team hopes that their study will encourage further research on schizophrenia to look into other brain areas. The video below has more information on the complex condition of schizophrenia.