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Brain's Immune System Holds Clue To Schizophrenia Risk And Potential Treatment

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Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) discovered that immune system cells are more active in individuals at risk of developing schizophrenia as well as in patients who already have the disease.

The results of the research are vital because these may pave the way for a complete turnaround of what is currently understood about schizophrenia. Early testing of people with the most risk of developing the disease may be possible, enabling treatment early enough to prevent the most severe illness.

The group of researchers performed positron emission tomography scans on 56 individuals, including those who were already diagnosed with schizophrenia. They specifically looked into the activity levels of immune cells in the brain, known as microglia. Microglia react to any damage or infection in the brain and also carry out the process called pruning, which is the reorganizing of the brain cell networks.

The findings of the study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, showed that the relationship between the severity of schizophrenia and the activity level of the microglia are directly proportional. This means that the more severe the clinical manifestations, the more active the microglia are. Study subjects diagnosed with the disease were also noted to have high levels of microglia activity.

"Our findings are particularly exciting because it was previously unknown whether these cells become active before or after onset of the disease," said Peter Bloomfield, the lead author of the study. He added that disease processes and new drugs may hopefully be developed as they have already shown the early role of the cells in schizophrenia.

"This is a promising study as it suggests that inflammation may lead to schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders," said Dr. Oliver Howes, head of the psychiatric imaging group at the MRC. He added that schizophrenia is a conceivably mortifying problem and so new medications for those at risk and already affected are desperately needed. Now, the goal is to examine whether anti-inflammatory modalities can target the problem.

Professor Hugh Perry, chairman of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Board at the MRC, commented that the research contributes to the increasing evidence that brain inflammation could be considered as one of the factors affecting other neurological disorders such as depression and Alzheimer's disease.

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