According to a recent study published by scientists at the University of North Carolina, children at risk of schizophrenia exhibit unusual brain activity that is linked with unusual neural circuitry. The unusual neural circuitry and activity is correlated with the brains of children whose family has a history of schizophrenia, and who are therefore 8-12x more likely than those without a first degree family member of exhibiting schizophrenic symptoms. “Brain scans of childrenw ho have parents or siblings with the illness reveal a neural circuitry that is hyperactivated or stressed by tasks that peers with no family history of the illness seem to handle with ease”(University of North Carolina Health Care, 2013).
The study anticipates the eventual onset of some of schizophrenia’s more well-known and troubling symptoms, such as paranoid delusions and hallucinations(University of North Carolina Health Care, 2013). While the earliest signs of schizophrenia involve decrease in IQ and decline in verbal memory, this study may point to even earlier warning signs which may be useful for intercepting its more serious symptoms. The study went as follows:
In this study, Belger and her colleagues sought to identify what if any functional changes occur in the brains of adolescents at high risk of developing schizophrenia. She performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on 42 children and adolescents ages 9 to 18, half of which had relatives with schizophrenia and half of which did not. Study participants each spent an hour and a half playing a game where they had to identify a specific image — a simple circle — out of a lineup of emotionally evocative images, such as cute or scary animals. At the same time, the MRI machine scanned for changes in brain activity associated with each target detection task.
Belger found that the circuitry involved in emotion and higher order decision making was hyperactivated in individuals with a family history of schizophrenia, suggesting that the task was stressing out these areas of the brain in the study subjects.
“This finding shows that these regions are not activating normally,” she says. “We think that this hyperactivation eventually damages these specific areas in the brain to the point that they become hypoactivated in patients, meaning that when the brain is asked to go into high gear it no longer can.”
Belger is currently exploring what kind of role stress plays in the changing mental capacity of adolescents at high risk of developing schizophrenia. Though only a fraction of these individuals will be diagnosed with schizophrenia, Belger thinks it is important to pinpoint the most vulnerable people early to explore interventions that may stave off the mental illness (University of North Carolina Health Care, 2013)
University of North Carolina Health Care. (2013, March 22). Alterations in brain activity in children at risk of schizophrenia predate onset of symptoms. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 6, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130322174343.htm