What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a chronic, debilitating brain disorder that causes the individual to become increasingly out of touch with reality. Often, the patient will hear voices, hallucinate, become highly agitated, and unable to make sense with their speech. They may feel that people are out to harm them or control their control their thoughts. It is common for patients to believe that an outside force is communicating with them through television, music, or printed publications.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for schizophrenia, only medications that help lessen the symptoms. Schizophrenia is a disorder that the patient will most likely live with for the rest of their lives. Researchers are constantly studying and learning new things about the disorder all the time. A recent study has come one step closer to understanding how to better treat schizophrenia.
Neurotransmitters and Their Role in Schizophrenia
The brain is laden with chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send and receive information; it is essentially a switchboard that carries signals from one nerve cell to another. “Research has linked schizophrenia with abnormally high levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in a region of the brain called the striatum” (ScienceDaily, 2010). There are medications that can block this neurotransmitter, but it is not effective for all patients and has some serious side effects.
New pilot research, led by Dr James Stone of the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, has suggested that there is yet another neurotransmitter that is at play: glutamate, which is found in the hippocampus region of the brain. “Glutamate-releasing cells in a brain region called the hippocampus connect to the striatum and influence the activity of dopamine-releasing cells” (ScienceDaily, 2010). Armed with knowledge, scientists believe that if they can create a drug that “interferes” with the glutamate, they can prevent a schizophrenic from entering psychosis.
Participants underwent brain scans to monitor the levels of dopamine and glutamate. Of the participants, 16 were at risk of entering psychosis and 12 were healthy. For those at risk, there was a negative relationship between glutamate levels and dopamine levels. In those with the most negative relations, they did indeed go on to enter a state of psychosis. In the healthy participants, there was no relation at all. So what does this mean?
“In healthy volunteers, there’s no clear relationship between glutamate and dopamine, but in people with early signs of psychosis, we see this abnormal relationship,” Dr Stone said. “This suggests that the signaling pathway between the hippocampus and the striatum is dysfunctional, and we might be able to treat this by targeting the glutamate system. If drugs that act on glutamate signaling can prevent psychotic symptoms, it would mean a real shift in the way that people are treated for schizophrenia.”
The Future of Treating Schizophrenia
The future is looking bright for those suffering with schizophrenia. Scientists plan on conducting more research, this time with a larger group of participants, in hopes of confirming the newly found data. If they can indeed provide stronger evidence to support the pilot study, then they are already half way there in finding better treatment options. There are already a number of drugs that show promise in controlling the glutamate signals; perhaps these drugs will be the answer.
ScienceDaily (Sep. 30, 2010). Brain chemical finding could open door to new schizophrenia drugs. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100930101543.htm