N.C. ó Changes in brain function may foreshadow
schizophrenia as early as puberty, nearly a decade before most
patients begin showing obvious symptoms, new research from the
University of North Carolina shows.
in Chapel Hill looked at brain scans of 42 children, some as
young as 9, who had close relatives with schizophrenia. They
saw that many of the children already had areas of the brain
that were "hyper-activated" in response to emotional
stimulation and tasks that required decision-making, said
Aysenil Belger, associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC
School of Medicine and lead author of the study.
children are trying extra hard to do something that other
children are able to do without so much effort," Belger
said her teamís findings could help establish an earlier
diagnosis of the brain disease and ultimately point to
techniques for offsetting or minimizing disease progression.
are interested in seeing if we can find some way to
intervene," Belger added.
the possibilities for treatment are hormone therapies,
cognitive skills training and new medicines to improve brain
who have a parent or sibling with schizophrenia are about 10
times more likely to develop the disease than those who do
not. Signs of the illness typically begin in the late teens to
mid-20s. These include declines in memory, intelligence and
other brain functions that indicate a weakening in the brainís
processing abilities. More advanced symptoms may include
paranoid beliefs and hallucinations.
and her research team have been involved in previous studies
that identified at-risk teens beginning at age 16.
latest study, published in the March 6 issue of the online
journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, intentionally drew
its subjects from a younger age group.
were interested in seeing if being a first-degree family
member of someone with schizophrenia meant their brains were
already different," Belger said.
scientists examined brain activity using functional magnetic
resonance imaging while the children solved problems or viewed
pictures designed to trigger emotional responses.
is a particularly important time because thatís when the
brain changes tremendously, both functionally and
structurally," Belger said. "These changes are
accompanied by cognitive and emotional changes, but they donít
all happen at the same pace. The emotional area tends to
develop faster than the decision-making areas. Thatís why
teenagers are very emotional and impulsive. For most people,
this imbalance is temporary ó when puberty is over, at some
point, your cognition and emotions become regulated. But for
some people this doesnít happen."
researchers hope to learn more about brain development in
at-risk youth by continuing to follow the subjects of their
research over the next several years.
all the people who seem to have compromised circuitry in their
brain, if we come back and image them in later years, some may
be moving toward the cluster of symptoms for schizophrenia
while others may have other types of deficits," such as
bipolar disorder or attention deficit disorder, Belger said.
others may avoid serious disorders altogether.
brains all have different strengths and can be efficient in
different ways," Belger said. "Some may be able to
compensate. We donít exactly understand all the key
components at play here."
research is being funded by the National Institute of Mental
Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development. Co-authors included Diana Perkins, who is the
founder and director of UNCís Outreach And Support
Intervention Services program for adolescents and young adults
who are experiencing or are at risk for developing psychosis.
Cannon, a professor of psychology at Yale University who has
worked with Belger and Perkins on previous research, said the
latest findings line up with studies showing that these brain
disorders often start with increased neurological activity.
you have a brain that is only partially disordered, the
individual can sometimes still compensate by activating even
more in those areas that are used to solve the task,"
and other factors also come into play, but are not well
understood, Cannon pointed out.
researchers have determined that individuals with brain
disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar typically cope
better in settings where relationships and social expectations
best way to reduce all these negative stress hormones is
through a predictable social environment that is tight-knit
emotionally," Belger explained. "That means having
friends or other people around who can provide social feedback