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Study Uncovers Possible Schizophrenia Trigger

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Study Uncovers Possible Schizophrenia Trigger

A new study of the brain mechanisms behind schizophrenia has found the illness could be triggered by an infection during the early stages of pregnancy.

The study, by researchers from University of Otago's Department of Psychology, found a one-off infection in a pregnant rat could result in long-range neural problems in her offspring.

PhD candidate and lead author Desiree Dickerson said the study, believed to be the first of its kind, was an exciting step toward understanding the brain mechanisms that underpinned schizophrenia.

"There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting that changes in neural synchronisation may underlie a range of symptoms seen in schizophrenia," she said.

"At the same time many studies have found that infection during early-to-mid pregnancy slightly increases the overall risk of children developing this illness as adults, with recent research implicating the mother's immune response."

Ms Dickerson said the study helped "connect the dots" between maternal infection and the synchrony research.

"We show that a single activation of an immune response during pregnancy can lead to adult offspring showing disrupted communication between two key brain regions implicated in schizophrenia," she said.

"Moreover, these offspring also displayed hallmark schizophrenia-like changes in their behaviour as they became adults, such as an abnormal startle response."

Ms Dickerson said effective communication between brain regions required synchronised firing of groups of cells within the brain.

"This can be compared to a crowd performing a Mexican wave. Brain cells in individuals with schizophrenia are like people trying to produce the Mexican wave independently and with poor timing -- the wave doesn't form cohesively and the message is distorted."

Until now, there had not been a good model for investigating how and why the desynchornisation occurred, she said.

"Importantly, this study has provided a chance to examine what happens in schizophrenia at a biological level that would otherwise be inaccessible. This will ultimately lead to better understanding and treatment of this severe mental illness."

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