Brain clues reveal risk of psychotic illness

September 5, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—New research has shown that people with psychotic illness show similar brain changes to immediate family members who present no signs of illness.

In a study detailed in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers at Monash University, in collaboration with The University of Melbourne and the University of Cambridge, UK, found that these represent a marker of of developing psychotic illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Alex Fornito, Deputy Director of Monash Clinical and Imaging Neuroscience in the School of Psychology and Psychiatry, said these could be targeted in the development of new treatments that may help to reduce the risk of developing .

"First-degree relatives of people with psychosis are at increased genetic risk of developing a psychotic illness," Associate Professor Fornito said.

"We have found that people with psychosis and their unaffected first-degree relatives, who otherwise present no signs of illness, show similar brain changes when compared to healthy people."

Associate Professor Fornito said even at the earliest signs of illness, patients showed altered activity (when compared to healthy people) in a specific that links a region deep in the brain called the striatum with the prefrontal cortex. This circuit plays an important role in attention, .

"The fact that we see the same brain changes in this group, in the absence of any overt signs of illness, points to a neural biomarker of risk for psychosis," Associate Professor Fornito said.

"Patients who showed more severe changes in this circuit also showed more severe , providing a direct link between these brain changes and illness severity."

The study examined 19 young people experiencing their first episode of psychotic illness and 25 of their unaffected parents or siblings. A group of 26 healthy unrelated participants was also recruited to draw comparison.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to map the activity of different brain systems.

The study also found a change in brain activity that was specific to patients but not their relatives. Associate Professor Fornito said this change may reflect a 'switch' that determines whether a person transitions from an at-risk state to full-blown illness.

"We know that activity in brain circuits linking the striatum and are heavily influenced by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is a major target for all medications currently used to treat psychosis," Associate Professor Fornito said.

"The difficulty is that these drugs have rather diffuse effects on the brain, affecting many different systems. They also often have unpleasant side effects.

"Our findings point to a more specific treatment target. We are currently investigating whether we can selectively improve activity patterns in the affected circuits using non-invasive magnetic stimulation techniques. If successful, using these techniques in at-risk populations may help delay, minimise or prevent the impact of psychosis onset."

Approximately three in 100 people will experience a psychotic episode at some point in their life. Psychotic disorders have been estimated to cost the Australian economy over $2 billion each year.

Explore further: Brain scans could predict response to antipsychotic medication

Related Stories

Brain scans could predict response to antipsychotic medication

August 14, 2013
Researchers from King's College London and the University of Nottingham have identified neuroimaging markers in the brain which could help predict whether people with psychosis respond to antipsychotic medications or not.

Evidence of familial vulnerability for epilepsy and psychosis

May 2, 2012
Although the two disorders may seem dissimilar, epilepsy and psychosis are associated. Individuals with epilepsy are more likely to have schizophrenia, and a family history of epilepsy is a risk factor for psychosis. It is ...

Long-term cannabis use may blunt the brain's motivation system

July 1, 2013
Long-term cannabis users tend to produce less dopamine, a chemical in the brain linked to motivation, a study has found.

High levels of glutamate in brain may kick-start schizophrenia

April 18, 2013
An excess of the brain neurotransmitter glutamate may cause a transition to psychosis in people who are at risk for schizophrenia, reports a study from investigators at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) published ...

Recommended for you

Depression changes structure of the brain, study suggests

July 21, 2017
Changes in the brain's structure that could be the result of depression have been identified in a major scanning study.

Many kinds of happiness promote better health, study finds

July 21, 2017
A new study links the capacity to feel a variety of upbeat emotions to better health.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.