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Schizophrenia: Scientists unravel patterns in the brain - Reliable early detection possible for the first time with neuroimaging

It is speculated by the painter Vincent van Gogh, and the mathematician John Forbes Nash, whose life was filmed in the film "A Beautiful Mind" with Russell Crowe, is known: They suffered from a schizophrenic psychosis, also known as schizophrenia. This disease affects one percent of the population, making it the third most common mental illness worldwide. Affected people often hear voices or suffer from delusions, they react and act incalculably and uncontrollably during a schizophrenic episode.


Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that represents a massive burden for those affected, but also for their relatives, and, if left untreated, can even lead to the patient's suicide. If schizophrenia is diagnosed early, the treatment options and thus the clinical course improve significantly. However, the first symptoms of schizophrenic psychosis are usually very unspecific, which is why the disease is usually only recognized several years after the onset of the disease.

Now, for the first time, researchers have succeeded in diagnosing the preliminary stages of schizophrenia and thus predicting an outbreak of the disease with up to 90 percent certainty. An international team of researchers from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and the University of Pennsylvania (USA) was able to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize patterns in the brain at an early stage of the disease that only occur in schizophrenic patients. The scientific project comes from the field of neuroimaging. Neuroimaging is still a young field of research in which diseases are analyzed by looking at brain structures and brain activities.

If treated early, the prognosis improves
Prof. Dr. Christian Gaser, head of the international research team and the BMBF-funded Neuroimaging Junior Research Group at the Clinic for Psychiatry at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, explains the scope of the results: “By looking into the patient's brain, we can recognize patterns at an early stage suggestive of schizophrenia. This means that treatment is possible before the disease breaks out. In this way, the doctor can positively influence the course of the disease. ”A later outbreak of schizophrenia, which is accompanied by delusions, hallucinations and thought disorders, can be prevented or at least mitigated by early therapy.

Computer program recognizes patterns in the brain
How did neuroscientists identify the patterns in the brain that indicate the early stages of schizophrenia? To do this, they looked at MRI images of the brains of test subjects who are at high risk of developing schizophrenia. These images were then compared with the brain structures of healthy controls. “In doing so, we discovered patterns that occurred repeatedly in the high-risk patients and not in the control persons. With our approach, we can map differences in the anatomy of the brains of the various test subject groups in the MRI, ”explains expert Prof. Gas. From these deviations in the brain structure, the scientists deduced that the pattern must be disease-specific.

To compare the MRT images, the researchers used a pattern recognition process that comes from the research field of computational neuroscience. A computer program analyzed the brain scans of healthy and high-risk test persons for distinguishing features and derived regularities from them. With the help of a brain scan and subsequent computer analysis, the researchers were able to predict a later outbreak of the disease with up to 90 percent certainty.

The future of the method: diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease
"Should the findings now be confirmed in further studies," explains Prof. Dr. Gaser, “the doctor would be given an important means of confirming the suspicion of the onset of schizophrenia. He could start therapy early. ”This new method is also a promising option for examining other diseases of the brain. In the future, pattern recognition processes could be established that help to identify changes in the brain of patients with a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. Because even patients with Alzheimer's dementia have a significantly better prognosis with early diagnosis and treatment. A study to establish the method in Alzheimer's patients is already planned.

Schizophrenia: symptoms and course

The term schizophrenia goes back to the ancient Greek word schizein ("split off") and was first used at the beginning of the last century for the clinical picture. Experts believe that the term itself is responsible for most of the prejudices related to the disease. The common assumption that schizophrenic people have “split personalities” is wrong. Rather, those affected suffer from a split in their psychological performance: some abilities, such as memory, are retained, while others are severely impaired. This can lead to mental disorders, impaired motor skills and, in many cases, severe delusions and hallucinations. Sick people often hear voices, feel persecuted or can no longer distinguish between reality and delusions.

The disease, which affects around 800,000 people in Germany, usually occurs between the ages of 20 and 30 and affects men and women about equally often. It usually breaks out in bursts, with an attack lasting several weeks to months. In around 30 percent of those affected, the schizophrenic psychosis can turn into a chronic condition that is still difficult to treat today. In addition to the symptoms of the disease, those affected also suffer from social stigmatization and prejudice, which often lead to social isolation.

Contact Person:
Prof. Dr. Christian Gaser
Center for Neuroimaging
Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
Friedrich Schiller University Jahnstrasse 3
07743 Jena
Tel .: 03641 934-752
Fax: 03641 934-755
Email: [email protected]