Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that can affect both men and women. Even though no single cause for this disease has been uncovered, scientists believe that is caused by a combination of genetic, pre-natal, and environmental factors. In some cases, it may be aggravated by stress, trauma, or even drug use later in life. While there is no cure for this mental illness, doctors are getting much better at helping patients manage symptoms through medication and therapy.
There are notable differences between the brains of schizophrenics than the brains of people who do not suffer from this mental illness. Some of these differences are so small that they can only be detected by machines, but some are large enough to be seen by studying a full-sized brain. In the past, doctors could only examine brains after patients died. Now scientists can use MRI, PET scans, and CT scans, and blood tests to study active brains in live patients Improved diagnostic techniques have allowed scientists to learn a lot more about this mental illness in the last few decades.
Brain Differences Found In Schizophrenics
It has become clear that schizophrenia is not just a mental illness, but also a brain disease. Consider some typical schizophrenia brain differences that scientists have uncovered.
- Neurotransmitters: Neuron receptors are abnormal in the way they receive dopamine and possibly serotonin.
- Brain lobes: Brain scans of afflicted people show enlarged lateral ventricles. Sometimes schizophrenics also have a reduced cerebral cortex and smaller brain volume.
- Reduced blood flow: People who suffer from this malady often have a reduced blood flow in the frontal regions, especially during activities that normally activate frontal lobes in unaffiliated people.
- Temporal lobe structures: There is a lot of evidence that the hippocampus and amygdala, regions of the limbic system responsible for mood and emotion, and parts of the brain responsible for both speech and auditory learning are smaller than they are in typical brains.
- Prefrontal Cortex: This is the part of the brain associated with memory, and it is generally affected. This could explain disordered thoughts the schizophrenics experience when suffering from positive symptoms.
It is not clear that these abnormalities are always present in the brains of afflicted people, or if the disease causes progressive brain damage. It is interesting to note that Dr. Kraeplin first described schizophrenia a century ago, and he was convinced it was an organic brain disease. Still, the diagnosis of this disease is a clinical one, and that means it is based upon the observation of schizophrenia symptoms, and not by evaluating subject’s brains.
Is The Clinical vs. Physical Diagnosis of Schizophrenia Valid?
Most psychiatrists still believe that clinical diagnosis is mostly reliable, but there are still debates about the boundaries between a schizophrenia diagnosis and some other mental maladies. For example, there has been quite a bit of literature about the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia in patients who are really bipolar.
Other mental illnesses that might have symptoms that mimic some symptoms of schizophrenia are depression, epilepsy, and even Asperger’s Syndrome. Obviously, the wrong diagnosis will lead to the wrong treatment, and this will result in a poor outcome for treatment, and probably even more suffering for the patient.
Why Do Scientists Need To Study the Brains of Schizophrenics?
There are multiple reasons why scientists need to keep studying the physical brains of people who suffer from this malady. The detection of brain abnormalities has already helped them develop better treatments. When doctors can see the actual brain’s function and structure, they can determine what is different about it than the brain of a typical individual who does not suffer from schizophrenia.
This ability has already helped doctors and drug companies develop medications that reduce symptoms. Hopefully, even more progress is on the horizon.
The detection and analysis of brain differences can also help doctors confirm their clinical diagnosis with physical evidence. When symptoms could be attributed to another disease, analysis of the actual living brain’s structure and functioning should provide the missing pieces of the puzzle.
In the meantime, if treatment is not working for an individual, it might be time to make sure the diagnosis is correct. Beyond that, some treatments work better on different individuals. As this disease progresses, it could cause more structural brain changes too. Therapies may need to change over time.
Schizophrenia Brains Are Different Than Typical Brains
Every individual with this disease is different. Causes of this disease also vary from person to person. That means that there is not one typical model of a schizophrenic brain. But a combination of factors can give scientists a clearer idea of exactly why schizophrenics suffer as they do. This can allow doctors to tailor a program that is designed to help each patient recover from his or her own manifestation of schizophrenia.