Certain brain circuits function abnormally in children at risk of developing
schizophrenia, according to a new study.
These differences in brain activity are detectable before the development of
schizophrenia symptoms, such as hallucinations, paranoia and attention and
The findings suggest that brain scans may help doctors identify and help
children at risk for schizophrenia, said the researchers from the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
People with a first-degree family member (such as a parent or sibling) with
schizophrenia have an eight- to 12-fold increased risk of developing the mental
illness. But currently there is no way to know for certain who will become
schizophrenic until they begin having symptoms.
'Hyper activated' emotion in children with a family history
In this study, the researchers performed functional MRI brain scans on 42
children, aged 9 to 18, while they played a game in which they had to identify a
simple circle out of a lineup of emotion-triggering images, such as cute or
scary animals. Half of the participants had relatives with schizophrenia.
The brain scans showed that the circuitry involved in emotion and higher
order decision making was "hyper activated" in children and teens with a family
history of schizophrenia. This suggests that the task was stressing out these
brain areas, according to the study.
"This finding shows that these regions are not activating normally," senior
study author Aysenil Belger, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC
School of Medicine, said in a university news release.
"We think that this hyper activation eventually damages these specific areas
in the brain to the point that they become hypo activated in patients, meaning
that when the brain is asked to go into high gear it no longer can," Belger
Being able to identify at-risk people before they actually develop
schizophrenia may help prevent them from developing it at all.
"It may be as simple as understanding that people are different in how they
cope with stress," Belger said. "Teaching strategies to handle stress could make
these individuals less vulnerable to not just schizophrenia but also other
Schizophrenia symptoms usually begin in the late teens or 20s, with men often
showing symptoms earlier than women, according to the US National Institute of
Mental Health. The disorder is rare in children and people over age 45.
The US National Institute of Mental Health has more about schizophrenia.
© 2013 HealthDay. All