A new brain imaging study has uncovered the path of destruction that schizophrenia appears to take as it progresses.
Such images could prove useful in developing drugs that fight the brain tissue loss and in monitoring whether existing medications bring measurable benefits to patients' brains.
The new research involved 12 patients who began showing schizophrenic symptoms early in life, by age 12. But the study's lead author told Reuters Health that the same brain changes likely occur in patients who develop symptoms in their late teens and early 20s--the most common time for the disorder to appear.
Dr. Paul Thompson and his colleagues compared brain scans of these patients with those of healthy teens, charting structural changes that occurred over 5 years.
What the investigators found was a "dynamic wave of change" in the schizophrenics' brains that arose hand-in-hand with worsening symptoms.
It all started with a small area of loss in the parietal region, an area connected to functions such as logical thinking.
From there, tissue loss accelerated and swept across the brain, affecting areas key to basic functioning like movement and hearing. This widespread assault on the brain reflects the cluster of symptoms that mark schizophrenia, which include an altered perception of reality, disordered thinking and a lack of emotional responsiveness.
Schizophrenia is a complex brain disorder whose cause remains elusive. But it is known to run in families, and scientists believe that genes, developmental factors and environment act in concert to trigger the disorder.
Even the healthy teens showed some slight brain tissue loss. This, suggests the possibility that schizophrenia arises from an abnormal acceleration or alteration in this apparently normal loss. It is unclear what might trigger such a scenario.
However, certain brain areas affected in schizophrenia are vulnerable to stress.
Scientists also speculate that prenatal exposure to infection or malnutrition may make people vulnerable to schizophrenia later on.
But a more immediate and practical use of these findings may be in monitoring how well schizophrenia drugs work. The results, could reveal whether a drug is actually halting the disease's progression.