A groundbreaking new study has identified higher immune cell activity in the brains of people who are at risk of becoming schizophrenic, and those who already have the mental health disorder. This new development could mean earlier diagnosis for people prone to developing the disease, which would mean earlier treatment and avoidance of the more severe symptoms. With this new information at their disposal, professionals working in the field have a whole new understanding of how to approach treating the disease.
The discovery was made in London where researchers were experimenting with positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and their ability to image levels of activity of immune cells in the brain. Immune cells in the brain work to correct damage and infection by rearranging links between brain cells to optimize communication. These cells are called microglia and this process of protecting the brain is known as pruning.
The research study observed 56 people who either already had schizophrenia, were at risk of developing it, or showed no symptoms or risk factors. Results showed that for people with schizophrenia, the activity of microglia was in direct proportion to the severity of the symptoms. This means that for schizophrenics with the most serious symptoms, their immune cells were working overtime in their brains.
Researchers were intensely interested in the findings because prior to this study no one knew if microglia became active before after schizophrenia sets in. As it turns out, immune cells do activate in the brain before the disease develops, and this means that earlier diagnosis and treatment is now possible. The devastating effects of schizophrenia can cause severe suffering and the sooner it can be treated and prevented, the better for everyone involved.
By highlighting a possible link between inflammation of the brain, schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders, this study offers a lot of new leads for treatment approaches. For example, it is possible that anti-inflammatory medications could have a positive effect on reducing symptoms of schizophrenia. If medications are developed that can specifically target inflammation in the brain, the disease may be able to be prevented altogether.
Schizophrenia is a complex disease because many factors play into its development, from genetics to behaviors. By discovering that inflammation may also be a key, new doors can be opened. Inflammation’s role has been noticed in other mental disorders like Alzheimer’s and depression. The future of mental health may lie in treating inflammation.
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