MRI reveals early brain changes linked to schizophrenia

January 8, 2007

Findings by a team in Scotland have opened the way to an accurate predictive test that might help prevent the onset of schizophrenia. MR scans have revealed changes in brain tissue in a small group of individuals before they developed schizophrenia.

Findings by a team in Scotland have opened the way to an accurate predictive test that might help prevent the onset of schizophrenia. MR scans have revealed changes in brain tissue in a small group of individuals before they developed schizophrenia.

The research, led by Dr. Dominic Jobs of the University of Edinburgh, suggests that looking at changes in brain structure over time could help doctors to predict whether a person who has a family history of schizophrenia will go on to develop the illness.

For 10 years, scientists at the university followed 200 young people who were at a high risk of developing schizophrenia because two or more family members had already been diagnosed with the illness. They analyzed MR scans of 65 of them, taken on average 18 months apart.

The team looked specifically for changes in gray matter, brain tissue made principally of neurons that transmit messages and help to store memories.

As a member of a high-risk group, each person in the study had approximately a 13% risk of developing schizophrenia. The MRIs revealed changes in brain tissue that increased this prediction to a 60% risk for some, thereby increasing clinicians' ability to determine if an individual had an elevated risk.

Eight of the 65 young people (aged 16 to 25 at outset of study) went on to develop schizophrenia, on average 2.3 years after their first scan. The MR scans of each of these eight individuals revealed that they had changes in gray matter before they became unwell.

"Although there are no preventative treatments for the illness, an accurate predictive test could help researchers to assess possibilities for prevention in the future. Current methods are good for predicting who won;t develop schizophrenia but not who will," Jobs said.

By combining brain imaging with traditional clinical assessments, it might be possible to detect people who are at highest risk of the illness early, he said.

Because the number of participants in this study was small, the test needs to be replicated independently to confirm that MR scanning to measure changes in gray matter is a reliable way to predict whether a person who is already at high risk is even more likely to go on to develop schizophrenia, the researchers said.

For more from the Diagnostic Imaging archives:

Functional MRI reveals clues to social behaviour

Multiple modalities explore schizophrenia

Neuroimaging sharpens focus on mild cognitive impairment