MRI scans detecting chemical imbalance may predict schizophrenia

MRI scans detecting chemical imbalance may predict schizophrenia

A chronic and severe mental health condition, schizophrenia is characterized by a patient’s detachment from the real world with typical symptoms including hallucinations (apparent perception of something not present), delusions (unreal thoughts), unusual or dysfunctional ways of thinking, and movement disorders.

Despite its low prevalence in the adult population of the United States, 1.1 percent, schizophrenia exerts tremendous health, social and economic burden on patients, families, caregivers and society, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In the U.S., the economic burden related to schizophrenia has been estimated to be around 60 billion dollars per year. Though the exact cause of schizophrenia is unclear, a combination of genetics and environmental factors is known to trigger this mental illness, while researchers have been continuously involved in understanding the causes of schizophrenia.

A recent study presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Annual Meeting in Hollywood, Florida has revealed some interesting information about the association between chemical imbalances in the brain and occurrence of schizophrenia.

Understanding how brain works

Schizophrenia is a disabling progressive mental health disorder associated with structural changes in both white (clinical significance) and gray matter (changes related to intelligence and memory). Located in the deeper tissues of the brain (subcortical), white matter contains nerve fibers (axons) while gray matter refers to the darker tissue of the brain and spinal cord comprising mainly of nerve cell bodies and branching dendrites.

Previous researches suggest that these changes start to appear before the onset of clinical symptoms in cortical regions, particularly involving language processing. Later, they can be correlated to progressive ventricular enlargement. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has come up as an innovative tool to mark early changes in the brain structure and predict the risk of developing schizophrenia.

Oxidative stress overproduces free radicals causing an imbalance

The neuroscientists used a novel magnetic resonance investigation technique to study the changes in brain structures of people living with schizophrenia. The scans revealed higher levels of oxidative stress (an imbalance between the production of free radicals and body’s ability to neutralize their harmful effects using antioxidants) in patients with schizophrenia, in comparison to healthy individuals.

This association indicates damaging role of chemical imbalance (oxidative stress) to cause schizophrenia. Oxidative stress starts damaging cell structures when there is a deficiency of enzymatic or non-enzymatic antioxidants, which leads to overproduction of free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS).

Dr. Fei Du, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the lead investigator of the study said, “Intensive energy demands on brain cells leads to accumulation of highly reactive oxygen species, such as free radicals and hydrogen peroxide.” The action mechanism of excessive oxidation in causing inflammation and cellular damage in schizophrenia is quite similar to the chemical reaction involved in corrosion of metal to rust.

Dr. Du is upbeat about the role of these findings in exploring effectiveness of new interventions to treat the disorder. He is hopeful that one of the focus areas of future research will be to protect the brain from oxidative stress and find ways to improve brain function.

Do not let people with schizophrenia lose hope

Schizophrenia cannot be cured but it can be managed if help is sought timely. Psychiatrists, psychologists, primary care doctors, social workers along with families of the patients need to explore available resources to complement treatment and decrease the suffering.

Many people with schizophrenia have recovered to a point where they are living functional and rewarding social lives with their family and friends. When it comes to treatment outcomes, the amount of time between the onset of symptoms, and diagnosis and subsequent treatment is crucial for schizophrenia patients. Sooner the treatment, better the outlook for improvement and recovery.

The California Mental Health Helpline helps mental health patients lead a better life. If you would like to have more information on mental health facilities in California, you may chat online with experts or call our 24/7 Helpline 855-559-3923. They can also guide you to the best mental health rehabilitation centers in California and available treatment options.