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Schizophrenic Brains (video)
March 04, 2003

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Interviewees: Constance Lieber, National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, and William Greenough, University of Illinois.

Video is 1 min 41 sec long. Please be patient while it loads enough to start playing.

Produced by Sanjanthi Velu

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It's a mental illness that robs victims of their thoughts. But now, there's a new understanding of schizophrenia from neuroscientists studying the brains of deceased patients.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, schizophrenic brain cells sprout abnormal connections that could be affecting the way schizophrenics think.

Schizophrenia: A Thought Disorder

John Nash, the brilliant mathematician of the 1950s, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994, and who was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, may be the most well known schizophrenic yet. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than two million Americans are affected by this devastating mental illness.

Since the victims of schizophrenia are robbed of their thoughts, it is “often referred to as a thought disorder”, says William Greenough, Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, Cell and Structural Biology, and a faculty member at the Beckman Institute, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He says, “The reality that the schizophrenic sees is simply different from the reality that all of the rest of us see”.

Constance Lieber, the president of the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), has personally seen schizophrenia up close. Her daughter Janice was suddenly struck by delusions and hallucinations while in graduate school. She heard strange voices and thought people were coming after her to harm her. She even heard voices coming through the radio and television, telling her that she was a bad person. Mrs. Lieber and her husband watched as the disorder changed their bright and talented daughter’s life forever.

Neuroscientists are still grappling with the causes of schizophrenia. Until now, they’ve focused on identifying the genes and brain chemicals involved. “There is a very powerful genetic component to schizophrenia,” says Greenough, “although the particular genes that are involved haven’t been identified yet. The brain chemical that’s apparently abnormal in schizophrenia is called dopamine, and it’s a chemical that nerve cells use to communicate with one another.”

But Greenough thinks something else is happening to the nerve cells in the front of the brain, in an area above the eyes and behind the forehead, called the pre-frontal cortex. He points out that the prefrontal cortex “is the part of the brain that deals with cognitive activity, the highest thought processes.”

Nerve cells have branches called dendrites and on those branches are tiny finger-like projections called spines that receive signals from neighboring cells. Greenough’s team collaborated with the Mental Health Research Institute in Moscow, Russia to study the nerve cells, dendrites and the spines in the prefrontal cortex of the brains of deceased adults. While previous studies have shown that the schizophrenic’s nerve cells have fewer and less elaborate branches extending from them than normal nerve cells, Greenough’s team found that the spines were also abnormal in schizophrenic’s brains. They were, “misshapen, swollen and short relative to the spines in non-patients”, according to Greenough. Researchers say this could be affecting communication between nerve cells in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain where thoughts are processed.

The researchers also know that life’s experiences constantly alter nerve cells and their connections in the brain. Greenough points out that in early childhood, the brain is programmed to produce more connections than it typically needs. But during development those connections that are actually used and have a purpose, are kept, while the ones that aren't used are pruned away. This pruning process normally eliminates extra connections and keeps the brain efficient. But Greenough explains that in the case of schizophrenics this normal process is driven in an abnormal direction, whereby an over-pruning of the connections takes place, leaving too few to do much.

Greenough stresses that “we’re going to have to know a lot more about what’s wrong in the prefrontal cortex before it would go directly to provide us information that will be useful in treatment.” But he is hopeful that “complete knowledge of what’s going on in the prefrontal cortex will suggest treatments that will reverse some or even perhaps all of those symptoms”.

This study was supported by grants from the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

by Sanjanthi Velu

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