Though there is currently no medicine available that can cure or reverse the onset of schizophrenia, new research shows that the human brain has the ability to remodel itself as part of its own attempt to overcome the condition. This discovery provides new hope that it may one day be possible to harness the brain’s natural elasticity in order to develop new treatments for a range of cognitive disorders.
It has long been known that schizophrenia is accompanied by structural changes in the brain, as certain key brain regions decrease in volume. Recent research has shown that this is at least partially caused by a process known as “synaptic pruning,” whereby the immune cells of the central nervous system attack the connections between neurons.
However, the new study – which appears in the journal Psychological Medicine – indicates that when this occurs, the brain attempts to compensate for this shrinkage by increasing the volume of gray matter in other regions.
After conducting a number of imaging tests on schizophrenic and healthy volunteers, using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and covariance analysis, the study authors made a number of key observations. Most significantly, they found that the brains of people who had been suffering from schizophrenia for less than two years were easy to tell apart from those of non-sufferers, as there were obvious decreases in gray matter. However, beyond this two-year threshold, the schizophrenic brain apparently begins to “rebuild” itself, making it much harder to distinguish from healthy brains as the volume of gray matter increases.
Schizophrenia has a range of symptoms, including hallucinations and paranoia. Stokkete/Shutterstock
In response to this pretty incredible discovery, the researchers say they hope to one day be able to make use of the brain’s inherent ability to make “compensatory changes” to its own structure in order to overcome schizophrenia.
Such an outcome is still some way off, however, as the brain’s capacity for self-reinvention is not currently efficient enough to reverse the condition, and will therefore need some channeling in order to become effective.
Indeed, the increase in gray matter observed in long-term schizophrenics does not actually bring about a reduction in symptoms, as these increases are typically concentrated in the wrong regions. For instance, schizophrenia is often accompanied by a reduction in the volume of the parahippocampal region, leading to an enhanced risk of psychosis. Yet the researchers found that 11 different brain areas – none of which are located in this area – increased in volume.
As such, the brain is not able to cure itself of schizophrenia, though the important finding here is that it is able to remodel and reorganize itself, thereby providing researchers with a potential new mode of action for the development of new treatments.