Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Columbia University have found that signs of schizophrenia can be detected in babies as young as a few weeks old. Their study is published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
Schizophrenia is a mental illness that is found in 1% of all individuals in the world, and is characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and/or thought disorganization. It usually presents in late adolescence or young adulthood.
The scientists used ultrasound and MRI to examine brain development in 26 babies born to mothers with schizophrenia. Having a first-degree relative with the disease raises a person’s risk of schizophrenia to one in 10. Among boys, the high-risk babies had larger brains and larger lateral ventricles — fluid-filled spaces in the brain — than babies of mothers with no psychiatric illness. The researchers found no difference in brain size among girls in the study. This fits the overall pattern of schizophrenia, which is more common, and often more severe, in males.
The findings do not necessarily mean the boys with larger brains will develop schizophrenia. Relatives of people with schizophrenia sometimes have subtle brain abnormalities but exhibit few or no symptoms. The team will continue to measure the children’s brains and will also track their language skills, motor skills and memory development. They will also continue to recruit women to the study to increase the sample size.
Lead study author John H. Gilmore, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the UNC Schizophrenia Research Center, states that this finding could allow for early identification of at risk children, and strategies for early treatment or intervention may be possible. This research provides the first indication that brain abnormalities associated with schizophrenia can be detected early in life.
- J. H. Gilmore, C. Kang, D. D. Evans, H. M. Wolfe, M. D. Smith, J. A. Lieberman, W. Lin, R. M. Hamer, M. Styner, G. Gerig. Prenatal and Neonatal Brain Structure and White Matter Maturation in Children at High Risk for Schizophrenia. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2010; DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101492