AsianScientist (Aug. 15, 2012) – An Australian study published recently in the journal Molecular Psychiatry has shown increased inflammation in the brains of people with schizophrenia, tightening the link between immune function and schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a complex, debilitating disease that makes it difficult for health experts to pinpoint the exact cause of it. The current consensus on the disease is that schizophrenia results from a combination of factors such as genetics, prenatal development, and life events.
In particular, viral infections in utero or in childhood have been found to be associated with an increased risk of developing the disease. Therefore, several research groups have subscribed to the pathogenic theory of schizophrenia by studying the link between early infections and the incidence of schizophrenia.
Challenging this theory, a team of scientists led by Professor Shannon Weickert at the Neuroscience Research Australia looked for changes in gene expression, particularly in genes that are involved in immune function, in the brains of people with schizophrenia and healthy people without the disease.
To their surprise, they observed increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in 40 percent of patients. These cytokines are involved in driving immune responses and triggering microglia, the main form of active immune defense in the brain.
Interestingly, increased brain inflammation resulting from cytokines was found in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a key brain region affected by schizophrenia.
“To find this immune pattern in nearly half of people with schizophrenia raises the possibility that this is in fact a new root cause of the disease,” said Weickert.
In addition, the group believes that their findings on the role of an overactive immune system in schizophrenia will pave the way for future therapies aimed at immune suppression.
“As there are multiple biological root causes of schizophrenia, the fact inflammation occurs in 40 percent of individuals is huge, and opens up a whole new range of treatment possibilities,” Weickert said.
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