Tracing the Developmental Patterns of Schizophrenia

Although the symptoms of schizophrenia often do not appear until early adulthood, new research may provide insight into the development of the disease, which may occur as early as in the womb.

Research has shown that, although the symptoms of schizophrenia do not manifest until many years later, the disease can be triggered by an infection in the womb. A new study by researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) sought to trace the development of the disease before symptom onset, finding that it may eventually be possible to prevent the onset of schizophrenia.

"Pharmacological treatments for schizophrenia remain unsatisfactory, so clinicians and researchers like myself have started to dig in another direction," said professor Ina Weiner, TAU department of psychology. "The big question asked in recent years is if schizophrenia can be prevented."

The research team, led by Weiner, gave pregnant rats a viral mimic that is known to induce a schizophrenia-like behavioral disorder in offspring. Though the offspring were normal at birth and during adolescence, schizophrenia-like symptoms began to manifest during early adulthood. The rats most at risk for developing the mental disorder were treated with risperidone and clozapine. When the researchers compared the brains of the at-risk rats, they found that those who had been treated maintained lateral ventricles and a hippocampus that were a “healthy size,” an indication that brain deterioration had been arrested.

According to Weiner, "clinicians have suspected that these drugs can be used to prevent the onset of schizophrenia, but this is the first demonstration that such a treatment can arrest the development of brain deterioration.”

Weiner is now conducting research to determine the point at which changes in the brain are detectable. Based on the current study results, Weiner believes that “an effective non-invasive prediction method (looking at the developmental trajectory of specific changes in the brain), coupled with a low dose drug taken during adolescence, could stave off schizophrenia in those most at risk.”