Brain activity pattern may be early sign of schizophrenia

November 8, 2018, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Schizophrenia, a brain disorder that produces hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments, usually strikes during adolescence or young adulthood. While some signs can suggest that a person is at high risk for developing the disorder, there is no way to definitively diagnose it until the first psychotic episode occurs.

MIT neuroscientists working with researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and the Shanghai Mental Health Center have now identified a pattern of activity correlated with development of , which they say could be used as a marker to diagnose the disease earlier.

"You can consider this pattern to be a risk factor. If we use these types of brain measurements, then maybe we can predict a little bit better who will end up developing psychosis, and that may also help tailor interventions," says Guusje Collin, a visiting scientist at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the lead author of the paper.

The study, which appears in the journal Molecular Psychiatry on Nov. 8, was performed at the Shanghai Mental Health Center. Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a visiting scientist at the McGovern Institute and a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is one of the principal investigators for the study, along with Jijun Wang of the Shanghai Mental Health Center, William Stone of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the late Larry Seidman of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Martha Shenton of Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Abnormal connections

Before they experience a , characterized by sudden changes in behavior and a loss of touch with reality, can experience milder symptoms such as disordered thinking. This kind of thinking can lead to behaviors such as jumping from topic to topic at random, or giving answers unrelated to the original question. Previous studies have shown that about 25 percent of people who experience these early symptoms go on to develop schizophrenia.

The research team performed the study at the Shanghai Mental Health Center because the huge volume of patients who visit the hospital annually gave them a large enough sample of people at high risk of developing schizophrenia.

The researchers followed 158 people between the ages of 13 and 34 who were identified as high-risk because they had experienced early symptoms. The team also included 93 control subjects, who did not have any risk factors. At the beginning of the study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure a type of brain activity involving "resting state networks." Resting state networks consist of brain regions that preferentially connect with and communicate with each other when the brain is not performing any particular cognitive task.

"We were interested in looking at the intrinsic functional architecture of the brain to see if we could detect early aberrant brain connectivity or networks in individuals who are in the clinically high-risk phase of the disorder," Whitfield-Gabrieli says.

One year after the initial scans, 23 of the high-risk patients had experienced a psychotic episode and were diagnosed with schizophrenia. In those patients' scans, taken before their diagnosis, the researchers found a distinctive pattern of activity that was different from the healthy control subjects and the at-risk subjects who had not developed psychosis.

For example, in most people, a part of the brain known as the , which is involved in auditory processing, is highly connected to brain regions involved in sensory perception and motor control. However, in patients who developed psychosis, the superior temporal gyrus became more connected to limbic regions, which are involved in processing emotions. This could help explain why patients with schizophrenia usually experience auditory hallucinations, the researchers say.

Meanwhile, the high-risk subjects who did not develop psychosis showed network connectivity nearly identical to that of the healthy subjects.

Early intervention

This type of distinctive brain activity could be useful as an early indicator of schizophrenia, especially since it is possible that it could be seen in even younger patients. The researchers are now performing similar studies with younger at-risk populations, including children with a family history of schizophrenia.

"That really gets at the heart of how we can translate this clinically, because we can get in earlier and earlier to identify aberrant networks in the hopes that we can do earlier interventions, and possibly even prevent psychiatric disorders," Whitfield-Gabrieli says.

She and her colleagues are now testing early interventions that could help to combat the symptoms of schizophrenia, including cognitive behavioral therapy and neural feedback. The neural feedback approach involves training patients to use mindfulness meditation to reduce activity in the superior temporal gyrus, which tends to increase before and during auditory hallucinations.

The researchers also plan to continue following the patients in the current study, and they are now analyzing some additional data on the white matter connections in the brains of these patients, to see if those connections might yield additional differences that could also serve as early indicators of disease.

Explore further: Early warning sign of psychosis detected

Related Stories

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

People with psychotic-like experiences spend less time in healthy brain states

November 1, 2017
Healthy people experiencing subtle symptoms observed in psychotic disorders, such as hallucinations and delusions, have altered brain dynamics, according to a new study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience ...

Machine learning helps to predict the treatment outcomes of schizophrenia

July 12, 2018
Could the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders one day be aided through the help of machine learning? New research from the University of Alberta is bringing us closer to that future through a study published ...

Indications of psychosis appear in cortical folding

April 25, 2018
Imaging techniques can be used to detect the development of psychosis in the brains of high-risk patients at an early stage, as reported by researchers from the University of Basel and Western University in the journal JAMA ...

Childhood trauma link offers treatment hope for people with schizophrenia

March 12, 2018
People with schizophrenia may now benefit from more effective, tailored treatments and greater self-empowerment, thanks to research establishing a link between childhood trauma and some of schizophrenia's most common symptoms.

Recommended for you

Largest ever study of psychological sex differences and autistic traits

November 12, 2018
Scientists at the University of Cambridge have completed the world's largest ever study of typical sex differences and autistic traits. They tested and confirmed two long-standing psychological theories: the Empathizing-Systemizing ...

Major traumatic injury increases risk of mental health diagnoses, suicide

November 12, 2018
People who experience major injuries requiring hospital admission, such as car crashes and falls, are at substantially increased risk of being admitted to hospital for mental health disorders, found a study in CMAJ (Canadian ...

Nearly one in ten Americans struggles to control sexual urges

November 9, 2018
(HealthDay)—The #MeToo movement has given many Americans a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that may have left many wondering, "What were they thinking?"

Brain activity pattern may be early sign of schizophrenia

November 8, 2018
Schizophrenia, a brain disorder that produces hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments, usually strikes during adolescence or young adulthood. While some signs can suggest that a person is at high risk for developing ...

Social media use increases depression and loneliness

November 8, 2018
The link between the two has been talked about for years, but a causal connection had never been proven. For the first time, University of Pennsylvania research based on experimental data connects Facebook, Snapchat, and ...

Double whammy for grieving spouses with sleep problems

November 8, 2018
Sleep disturbances have a strong negative impact on the immune system of people who have recently lost a spouse, reports a new study from Northwestern Medicine and Rice University.

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.