Science + Technology

UCLA Researchers Map How Schizophrenia Engulfs Teen Brains


UCLAbrain researchers using a powerful new analysis technique have created thefirst images showing the devastating impact of schizophrenia on the brain. Thefindings, published in the Sept. 25 issue of the Proceedings of theNational Academy of Sciences, show how a dynamic waveof tissue loss engulfs the brains of schizophrenic patients in their teen-ageyears.

Thefindings may have key diagnostic implications. Aided by a better understandingof how psychosis develops, researchers can detect aberrant loss early and treatpatients as early as possible. Future medications might fight the rapid loss ofbrain tissue, and their effectiveness could be assessed using the imagingtechnique.

"This isthe first study to visualize how schizophrenia develops in the brain," saidPaul Thompson, an assistant professor of neurology at the UCLA School ofMedicine and the study's chief investigator. "Scientists have been perplexedabout how schizophrenia progresses and whether there are any physical changesin the brain. We were stunned to see a spreading wave of tissue loss that beganin a small region of the brain. It moved across the brain like a forest fire,destroying more tissue as the disease progressed."

Scientistsat UCLA and the National Institute of Mental Health employed magnetic resonanceimaging (MRI) technology to scan a group of teenagers repeatedly as theydeveloped schizophrenia. Using a new image analysis method that detects veryfine changes in the brain, the scientists detected gray matter loss of morethan 10 percent first in the parietal, or outer, regions of the brain; thisloss spread to engulf the rest of the brain over five years.

Patientswith the worst brain tissue loss also had the worst symptoms, which includedhallucinations, delusions, bizarre and psychotic thoughts, hearing voices, anddepression. Schizophrenia affects an estimated 1 percent of Americans. Itscauses are unknown, and the disease typically hits without warning in the lateteens or 20s.

Researchersalso detected a mild loss of brain tissue in healthy teen-agers. Between ages13 and 18, they lost about 1 percent gray matter per year in the parietalcortices, the region where the spreading wave began. In schizophrenics, thisbrain tissue loss gained momentum and swept into the sensory and motor regions.The frontal eye fields lost tissue fastest, at about 5 percent per year. Thesefields control eye movements, which often are disturbed in schizophrenicpatients.

Inanother first, the brain-mapping technique reveals underlying changes in thebrain's anatomical hardware as teenagers mature normally or develop psychosis.The identification of previously unseen waves of loss and key anatomicalchanges will allow scientists to establish powerful links between cognitive andbehavioral changes and rapid changes in underlying brain structures.

The UCLAand NIMH researchers are also applying this new imaging approach to relativesof schizophrenic patients to screen them for early brain changes. The diseaseruns in families, but specific risk genes have not yet been found. Although thecauses of the disease are currently unknown, some non-genetic trigger, in theteen-age years, may activate the disease in some individuals but not others.


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