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When we think about mental illness, one of the first conditions that comes to mind is schizophrenia. Strictly defined, schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder where patients hear voices others do not. Understandably, this is terrifying for the patients since they commonly believe that these voices are attempting to dictate their thoughts. However, due in part to the Hollywood movies we adore, mental illness has a very negative stigma associated with it. Indeed, a review of 41 movies produced between 1990 and 2010, all of which featured at least one main character with schizophrenia, found that most of these characters engaged in dangerous or violent behaviors towards themselves or others, with nearly a third of them engaging in homicidal behavior.

Because there currently is not a cure for schizophrenia, it is imperative to further investigate the underlying causes of this disease. Performing the largest structural brain meta-analysis of schizophrenia to date, an international team of scientists called the Enhancing Neuroimaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis (ENIGMA) project has identified structural brain abnormalities in schizophrenic patients.

In this comprehensive study, scientists from both the United States and Europe analyzed brain scans from roughly 2,000 schizophrenic patients and around 2,500 healthy individuals that functioned as the control of the study. After carefully analyzing the data they accrued, these researchers were able to uncover several trends in schizophrenic patients.

 Brain scan showing abnormalities in patients with schizophrenia

Image Source: Science Photo Library/ PASIEKA

The team found individuals with schizophrenia have smaller volumes of the hippocampusamygdalathalamusnucleus accumbens and intracranial space than controls, and larger pallidum and ventricle volumes. The study validates collaborative data analyses can be used across brain phenotypes and disorders, and encourages analysis and data-sharing efforts to further understanding of severe mental illness.

This study provides a map for future study of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The next step is to examine these abnormalities induced by schizophrenia, compare these physical effects to other conditions, and identify which brain structure is most impacted for each disorder. By doing this, the goal is to ultimately determine the effect of age, medication, environment, and symptom profiles on these disorders.

“There’s the increased possibility, not just because of the massive data sets, but also because of the collaborative brain power being applied here from around the world, that we will find something real and reliable that will change how we think about these disorders and what we can do about them,” Turner said.

Understanding a disease on both a macroscopic and microscopic level is necessary prior to discovering a remedy for an illness. This study is a very strong first step in the direction of understanding the effects of schizophrenia on a structural (macro) level. Because there are now specific regions of the brain to target, researchers can also begin to study these impacted areas on a molecular (micro) level, which would, in turn, be an incredible leap in understanding schizophrenia and maybe even mental illness as an aggregate. By isolating certain regions of the brain and studying them on a molecular level, Turner hopes to combine this new structural information with current hypotheses about schizophrenia on a neuronal level in an effort to fully comprehend this terrible disease.

Feature Image Source: Schizophrenia by The Cocoanaut

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