Breakthrough in schizophrenia identifies importance of immune cells

Breakthrough in schizophrenia identifies importance of immune cells
NeuRA and UNSW Professor Cynthia Shannon Weickert and NeuRA PhD student Helen Cai. Credit: NeuRA

Researchers from NeuRA and UNSW have made a major discovery in schizophrenia research that could open doors to new treatments, research and therapies.

In one of the biggest breakthroughs in research in recent times, Professor Cynthia Shannon Weickert from Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and UNSW Sydney has identified in greater amounts in the brains of some people with schizophrenia.

The study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, has the potential to transform global schizophrenia research and open new avenues for developing targeted immune cell therapies.

One in every 100 Australians lives with schizophrenia. No single cause of schizophrenia has been identified, and this has prevented the development of a cure. The current treatments for schizophrenia are designed to suppress symptoms rather than target underlying causes of the disorder. These drugs only partially relieve symptoms and can produce unwanted side effects.

Most scientists have had a long held belief that immune cells were independent from the brain pathology in psychotic illnesses, said Professor Shannon Weickert, who is the chair of NSW Chair of Schizophrenia Research based at NeuRA and the School of Psychiatry, UNSW.

"In our study, we challenged this assumption that immune cells were independent of the brain in psychiatric illness and made an exciting discovery. We identified immune cells as a new player in the brain pathology of schizophrenia," said Professor Shannon Weickert.

Current schizophrenia research has focused on the status of three brain cells: the neurons; the , which support the neurons; and the endothelial cells, which coat the blood vessels. Employing new molecular techniques allowed Professor Shannon Weickert and her team to identify the presence of a fourth cell, the macrophage, a type of immune cell in the brain tissue of people with schizophrenia who show high levels of inflammation.

"Immune cells have previously been ignored as they had long been viewed simply as travelers just thought to be passing by, undertaking surveillance work. They have never been a suspect until now," said Professor Shannon Weickert.

"To find immune cells along the blood brain barrier in increased amounts in people with schizophrenia is an exciting discovery. It suggests immune cells themselves may be producing these inflammatory signals in the brains of people living with schizophrenia."

"We have observed in people with schizophrenia, the glial cells, one of the local residents, become inflamed and produce distress signals which change the status of the endothelial cells.

"We think this may cause the to extend sticky tentacles, so when the immune cells travel by some are captured. These cells may transmigrate across the blood brain barrier entering the in greater amounts in some people with schizophrenia compared to people without the disorder," said Professor Shannon Weickert.

This discovery shows that specific immune cells are in the brains of some people with schizophrenia in close enough proximity to the neurons to do damage.

Professor Peter Schofield, CEO of NeuRA, said this innovative new research has the ability to possibly alter the diagnosis and treatment schizophrenia.

"This breakthrough demonstrates the value of the NSW Government's support for Professor Shannon Weickert as NSW Chair of Schizophrenia Research, which has delivered new insights that the community seeks," said Professor Schofield.

Professor Shannon Weickert is encouraging a cross-collaborative approach between neuroscientists and immunologists globally, to work together to develop treatments targeting this abnormal immune pathology of schizophrenia.

"This opens whole new avenues for therapy, because it suggests that the pathology of schizophrenia could be within the immune cells and the immune cells could be contributing to the symptoms of schizophrenia," said Professor Shannon Weickert.

Explore further

The brains of people with schizophrenia are on 'red alert', study finds

More information: Helen Q. Cai et al. Increased macrophages and changed brain endothelial cell gene expression in the frontal cortex of people with schizophrenia displaying inflammation, Molecular Psychiatry (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41380-018-0235-x
Journal information: Molecular Psychiatry

Citation: Breakthrough in schizophrenia identifies importance of immune cells (2018, September 14) retrieved 16 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 17, 2018
From outside, I am seeing differently, look at my working paper, as a lay person...

Sep 17, 2018
yet more evidence that schizophrenia is concerned with the immune system, that it is a clumsy method we have evolved to keep people with compromised immune systems away from other people. There is also evidence that too clean an early life is connected with autism spectrum disorder.

Sep 17, 2018
yet more evidence ... that it is a clumsy method we have evolved to keep people with compromised immune systems away from other people.

Nothing in the article gives such evidence. (I have not read the paper, but I suspect it does not either.)

There is also evidence that too clean an early life is connected with autism spectrum disorder.

Another claim without apparent supporting evidence.

As far as I know too clean environment insufficiently train the immune system, giving problems later as adult. While autism seems to be a development disorder, possibly tied to fetal infections but then "too dirty" (possibly in combination with the parents/mother brought up "too clean").

"Autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.[4] Risk factors include certain infections during pregnancy, such as rubella, as well as valproic acid, alcohol or cocaine use during pregnancy." [ https://en.wikipe...i/Autism ]

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