British researchers said on Monday they might have discovered how schizophrenia affects part of the brain by carrying out tests with "Special K", a popular club drug that mimics the symptoms of the mental illness.
Their work may lead to the development of new drugs to treat the condition and to a better understanding of how existing treatments work, said Mark Cunningham, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University in Britain, who led the study.
The findings also underscore the dangers of abusing ketamine, the drug the researchers used, which can cause feelings of detachment and has become popular among clubbers in recent years, he added. "This puts together bits of evidence that may change the way we think about the disease," Cunningham said.
Schizophrenia, characterised by hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking, is far more common in men than in women and is usually diagnosed in late adolescence or early adulthood. Anti-psychotic drugs can help, but they do not cure the mental illness and can have unpleasant side-effects, including sometimes dangerous weight gain.
How the study was done
Researchers do not know what causes schizophrenia, but most experts believe both genetic and environmental factors play important roles, Cunningham added.
The researchers looked at how ketamine affected the brains of rats. The drug is often used in schizophrenia research because it mimics many of the disease's behavioural symptoms in humans and animals.
In their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team showed how the drug disrupted the same electrical brain wave patterns in rats that go haywire in humans with schizophrenia. Specifically, the drug blocked so-called NMDA receptors in the brain, preventing them from working properly by causing a certain type of brain cell to malfunction.
Knowing how the NMDA receptors, which are involved in memory, go wrong on these particular cells and eventually unhinge the normal brain wave patterns opens up new areas of research into schizophrenia, Cunningham said.
"What we would like to do next is find out more about how these types of receptors work on these brain cells," he said. "Then we can think more about designing novel drugs to boost the activity of these receptors." – (Reuters Health, October 2008)
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