New possibilities for treatment of schizophrenia

Summer 2017

Schizophrenia has long been considered a degenerative illness, with the seeds of damage sown very early during the course of brain development, and no possibility of a cure.

Research from a team of scientists across the globe led by Lawson Health Research Institute’s Dr. Lena Palaniyappan is providing new insights that are challenging this perception.

Using imaging data, the team was the first to show that the brains of patients with schizophrenia have the capacity to reorganize and fight the illness.

“Even state-of-the-art treatments aim to reduce symptoms rather than a complete reversal because of the belief that there is no way to cure this illness and symptoms will continue to worsen,” says Dr. Palaniyappan. “However, in clinical practice, we observe that schizophrenia is episodic – patients have periods when they recover and times when they relapse.”

Schizophrenia is an illness generally associated with a widespread reduction in brain tissue volume, but the study found that, given sufficient time, a subtle increase in tissue also occurs in certain brain regions.

The researchers followed 98 patients with schizophrenia and compared them to 83 patients without schizophrenia.

The team used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and a sophisticated approach called covariance analysis to record the amount of brain tissue increase. This approach had never been used before.

“Despite the severity of tissue damage, our study found that the brain of a patient with schizophrenia is constantly attempting to reorganize itself, possibly to rescue itself or limit the damage,” says Dr. Palaniyappan, who is also medical director for the Prevention & Early Intervention Program for Psychoses (PEPP) at LHSC. “This highlights the need for alternate approaches to treatment of the illness.”

The team is now working to clarify the evolution of the brain tissue reorganization process by repeatedly scanning individual patients with early schizophrenia and studying the effect of this reorganization on their recovery.

The project is the result of an international collaboration among scientists in Nottingham, UK; Shanghai and Changsha, People’s Republic of China; Lawson Health Research Institute; and Robarts Research Institute at Western University.

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Dr. Lena Palaniyappan