Schizophrenia Brain Scans

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Long ago a person with schizophrenia had a very poor outlook as not much was understood about this severe mental illness. A person with schizophrenia would have had no access to the types of medication and psychological intervention therapies available today.

Although there is still some way to go, these days the treatment methods are a lot better and we are making progress towards a greater understanding of what schizophrenia is, how it develops, who is likely to be affected and what can be done to help prevent relapses occurring.

In the past, the only way to look at the brains of people with schizophrenia was to study their brains in a laboratory after death. Nowadays, the development of technologies such Positron Emission Tomography (PET scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) means that scientists are able to look at the brains of people with schizophrenia whilst they are still living which is shedding more and more light into this complex and distressing mental health disorder.

What brain scans can tell us?

Brain scans have only been in use for a few decades now but already they have demonstrated that people with schizophrenia often have reduced grey matter in certain areas of the brain and that there are sometimes changes in the functioning of the prefrontal and temporal cortex.

One area that brain scans have proved particularly useful is in ruling out other conditions. Some people who experience psychosis have an underlying organic disorder that is the cause of the psychosis and not schizophrenia. Brain scans can help to rule out causes such as epilepsy, brain tumours and brain injury. This is important when we consider treatment methods as a person with schizophrenia will require different treatment to say that of a person with epilepsy.

Very recently, scientists from Edinburgh University claimed that brain scans could help predict schizophrenia in people who are already considered at greater risk of developing the mental illness (they had a genetic disposition) and that they could predict this even before an individual started to show symptoms.

For a period of ten years they followed people who had a history of schizophrenia in their family but who hadn’t yet developed the condition themselves. Using MRI scans they examined the brains of a small sample of 65 and found that 8 of these went onto develop schizophrenia and that these 8 had changes in their grey matter before they developed any symptoms.  These changes were in an area of the brain which is involved in processing anxiety.

We already know that people with schizophrenia are far more susceptible to the effects of stress and anxiety than people who don’t have the disorder and that people who develop schizophrenia show increased anxiety levels prior to developing the condition.

This is only a small insight and a very small sample but the implications of the results are quite promising. Currently there is no diagnostic test for schizophrenia but detecting who is much more likely to develop schizophrenia can lead to early treatment and better preventative methods in the future.

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