It may be possible to prevent Schizophrenia by calming the brain's immune system, say scientists.
The brain’s immune cells are hyperactive in people who are at risk of developing Schizophrenia, as well as during the earliest stages of the disease, according to a new study by researchers at the Medical Research Council’s (MSC) Clinical Sciences Centre in London. The findings, published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggest that inflammatory processes play an important role in the development of the disease, and raise the possibility that it could be treated with drugs that block or reduce this cellular response.
Researchers at the MSC Clinical Sciences Centre, based at Imperial College London, in collaboration with colleagues at King’s College London used brain scans to measure levels of activity of immune cells in the brain. These cells, known as microglia, respond to damage and infection in the brain, and are also responsible for rearranging connections between brain cells so they work as well as possible; a process known as pruning. Experts believe they can detect the condition before the onset of the illness meaning doctors could treat those at risk early enough to avoid the most severe symptoms.
Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that affects about 1 in 100 people, and is characterised by symptoms such as auditory and visual hallucinations, and delusions of paranoia or grandeur.
Dr Oliver Howes, the head of the psychiatric imaging group at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, told the BBC News website: "This is a real step forward in understanding.
"For the first time we have evidence that there is over-activity even before full onset of the illness.
"If we could reduce activity [before full-blown illness] then we might be able to prevent the illness - that needs to be tested, but is one key implication [of the research]."
He thinks the microglia become like a gardener too keen with the shears and sever the wrong connections in the brain leaving it wired incorrectly.
"You can see how that would lead to patients making unusual connections between what is happening around them or mistaking thoughts as voices outside their head and causing the symptoms we see in the illness," Dr Howes added.
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