Schizophrenia, Stress, And Changes To The Brain

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It is well known that stress plays a major role in both physical and mental health problems and someone who is already suffering from a mental health condition like Schizophrenia is far more susceptible to the negative effects of stress than other people.

Stress associated with the breakdown of relationships, losing a job, death of a loved one, financial worries or even an exam or a job interview can cause an enormous amount of stress and anxiety in someone with Schizophrenia and possibly even trigger an episode of psychosis.

Schizophrenia is still poorly understood. For example, there isn’t a single identifiable cause and instead there would appear to be a number of possible triggers including everything from genetics to brain chemistry. Some people therefore believe that Schizophrenia is a whole range of disorders instead of just one.

Stress is not believed to be a cause of Schizophrenia but can make the symptoms of Schizophrenia much worse. It is already well established that there is link between the stress hormone Cortisol and different types of depression but one research study has taken us nearer to an understanding of the role that stress might play in the development of Schizophrenia.

Researchers at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre and Oxygen Research Centre in Australia found that Cortisol could possibly be responsible for changes in the brain that have been seen in people suffering from Schizophrenia.

Earlier work using MRI scans (Magentic Resonance Imaging) published in the Lancet in 2002 revealed that there were changes in the hippocampus area of the brains of young people in the early stages of Schizophrenia; this is the part of the brain that involves emotion, behaviour and memory.

In a more recent study they looked at young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 with a high risk of developing a psychotic illness and noted that those who did go on to develop psychosis had a larger pituitary gland at the base of their brains than those who did not.

Could it be that an enlarged pituitary gland causing higher amounts of Cortisol to be released could actually alter the brain?

Christos Pantelis, a Professor at Melbourne University, said that high levels of stress at the beginning of the illness may have an effect on the brain. What isn’t known is whether the enlarged pituitary gland was actually a cause of the brain changes seen in people with Schizophrenia or as a result of the brain changes so more research is required.

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