Researchers Could Help Predict People At Risk Of Schizophrenia Using New Scanning Methods

'DTI-sagittal-fibers' by Thomas Schultz. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By mapping the wiring of the brain using advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, researchers could help predict people at risk of schizophrenia. The study, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, scanned the brains of 123 people who were vulnerable to psychosis, and 125 people without this vulnerability and compared the differences.

Schizophrenic disorders affect more than 21 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and is characterized by disruptive thinking that can impact language and perception. The symptoms of schizophrenia can be partly explained by a 'disordered connectivity' in the brain. Thus, researchers used MRI scans to examine the brain wiring of young people who have some of the symptoms of schizophrenia. 

A team of scientists from Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC), the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, Kings College London and the University of Bristol, found that in those at risk of schizophrenia, the ability to transmit data from certain areas of the brain to others was reduced and some information pathways were diverted along a different route. This reduction and rerouting affected certain information centers, or "hubs," in the brain, which researchers suggest could lead to broad impairments in information processing similar to those observed in schizophrenia.

"We already know that the brains of people with schizophrenia are wired differently and are less efficient than healthy people," said Professor Derek Jones, director of CUBRIC in a statement. "However, until now, no study has tried to use this information to look at healthy individuals with some of the same symptoms but without actually having the condition."

Researchers studied the complex architectural features of brain networks using ‘graph theory,’ which is a branch of mathematics that measures the properties of networks and how it can be encoded. Traditionally used in computer science, graph theory is providing neuroscientists with a new tool to understand how brain networks are affected by mental disorders.

The changes identified by the researchers are “subtle,” according to Cardiff University's Dr. Mark Drakesmith, who led the research, but these changes would not have been detected using established brain imaging techniques, he says in a statement.

"Understanding the way people's brains become misconnected or connected less efficiently is crucial to understanding the illness," Professor Anthony David from Kings College London added. "What we would like to find out is why for some people, these changes progress while in others they don't—that's the next challenge."

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