The brains of patients with schizophrenia vary depending on the type of schizophrenia
I have a friend who lost an eye to his brother. Yes, you read that correctly, his brother tried to kill him and in the process he lost his eye. I’ve told this story before, but whenever new schizophrenia research comes out I feel the need to tell it again. While he has forgiven his brother (partly because not long after, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic), he will not be able to see him again until he is released from prison. A tragedy that could’ve been avoided had he been diagnosed sooner. Sadly now that he is treated, most days, you wouldn’t know he’s schizophrenic.
Now for how this story ties in, an international team has linked the symptoms of schizophrenia with the anatomical characteristics of the brain, by employing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The research could herald a significant step forward in the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. In a major breakthrough, scientists have successfully linked the symptoms of the illness with the brain’s anatomical features, using sophisticated brain-imaging techniques.
By analyzing the brain’s anatomy, the scientists have demonstrated the existence of distinctive subgroups among patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, who suffer from different symptoms. In order to carry out the study, the researchers employed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique called “diffusion tensor imaging” on 36 healthy subjects and 47 schizophrenic subjects.
The tests conducted on the schizophrenic subjects revealed that they had various abnormalities in certain parts of their corpus callosum, a bundle of neural fibers that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres and is considered essential for effective interhemispheric communication.
When the researchers detected anomalies in the brain’s entire corpus callosum, they discovered that certain characteristic features revealed in the brain scans coincided with specific schizophrenic symptoms. For instance, patients with specific features in a particular part of the corpus callosum exhibited strange and disorganized behaviour.
In other subjects, the irregularities observed in a different part of this brain structure were associated with disorganized thought and speech, and negative symptoms such as a lack of emotion. Other anomalies in the brain’s corpus callosum were associated with hallucinations.
In 2014, the same research group proved that schizophrenia is not a single illness. Rather, they demonstrated the existence of eight genetically distinct disorders, each of which has its own set of symptoms. Javier Arnedo and Igor Zwir, researchers from the University of Granada’s Department of Computer Technology and Artificial Intelligence, discovered that different sets of genes were strongly linked with different clinical symptoms.
As Igor Zwir points out: “The current study provides further evidence that schizophrenia is a heterogeneous group of disorders, as opposed to a single illness, as was previously thought to be case.”
The researchers believe that, in the future, analyzing how specific gene networks are linked to specific brain features and individual symptoms, will be of fundamental importance and will help to ensure that treatments are adapted effectively to each patient’s specific disorder. Currently, treatments for schizophrenia tend to be generic, regardless of the symptoms exhibited by each individual patient.
In order to conduct the analysis of both the gene groups and brain scans, the researchers developed a new, complex analysis of the relationships between different types of data and recommendations concerning new data. The system is similar to that used by companies such as Netflix in order to determine the films they wish to broadcast.
Professor Zwir explains: “To conduct the research, we did not begin by studying individuals who had certain schizophrenic symptoms in order to determine whether they had the corresponding brain anomalies.”
“Instead, we first analyzed the data, and that’s how we discovered these patterns. This type of information, combined with data on the genetics of schizophrenia, will someday be of vital importance in helping doctors treat the disorders in a more precise and effective way.”
Arnedo, J., Mamah, D., Baranger, D., Harms, M., Barch, D., Svrakic, D., de Erausquin, G., Cloninger, C., & Zwir, I. (2015). Decomposition of brain diffusion imaging data uncovers latent schizophrenias with distinct patterns of white matter anisotropy NeuroImage, 120, 43-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.06.083