Brain scans allow doctors to forecast schizophrenia

Brain scans could be used to help predict whether young people with a family history of schizophrenia will go on to develop the disease, a Scottish study suggests.

The Edinburgh University researchers revealed that the brains of people who went on to develop schizophrenia suffered from accelerated shrinking as they developed symptoms before they first become unwell.

Schizophrenia, which causes delusions and hallucinations, affects one in every 100 people.

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Experts already knew that the illness was associated with a reduction in brain tissue but the timing of these changes was unclear until now.

The Edinburgh study examined people at high risk of schizophrenia aged between 16 and 25 at the beginning of the study.

The team analysed brain scans of the 146 people with a family history of schizophrenia, but who had not yet experienced any symptoms, and compared them to scans of 36 people with no such risk. The scans were taken every 18 months over a ten-year period.

For the first time, the researchers were able to find changes in brain size in people at high risk of schizophrenia before they developed any symptoms.

Unlike previous studies, these changes could not be due to medication as all of the people in the study were unmedicated.

Dr Andrew McIntosh, of the Division of Psychiatry at Edinburgh University, said: "This study represents the culmination of more than ten years of work and is a significant step to understanding the origins of schizophrenia years before the onset of disability and medical treatment."

It is known that accelerated brain shrinkage occurs in people with bipolar disorder - manic depression - and schizophrenia, but until now it was not known whether these changes occurred before people became unwell.

The researchers said that scans could be used to identify shrinkage of the brain in people at high risk of schizophrenia.

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This may help doctors to diagnose the condition and start treatment at an earlier stage.

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, shows that the loss of brain tissue is concentrated in areas of the brain that control personality, decision-making and social behaviour.

Simon Lawton Smith, from the Mental Health Foundation, said: "The research findings are interesting in terms of understanding the origins of schizophrenia. This is essential for early identification and early treatment."Symptoms

The symptoms of schizophrenia vary between people.

The patient may experience hallucinations, such as seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling or tasting something that does not exist, as if it were real. They may hold false and often unusual beliefs with unshakeable conviction. People with schizophrenia may also become withdrawn, avoiding the company of friends and family and staying in their room.

The causes of schizophrenia remain unclear, but a combination of factors, such as stress, hereditary factors and drug abuse, have been shown to affect the risk of developing the condition.