A long, long time ago, in a galaxy just like ours….
Let’s let’s try that again.
Some of you might recall a time when a popular idea regarding mental illness was that the fault, dear reader, was not in our genes but in the way we communicated with each other.
In the mid-1950s, a number of social scientists and psychotherapists developed proposals that attributed schizophrenia to the exposure to, and participation in, dysfunctional communication patterns in the family.
Some of the concepts flying around like drunken pelicans included “double-bind communication,” “pseudomutuality, and “pseudohostility.” (For a nifty overview, circa 1997, see this article.)
It was an intriguing idea that sort of jelled with a lot of us Homo saps who viewed mental illness as w-a-a-a-y more environmentally than genetically determined. And even into the early 1960s, the majority of undergrad psych students would feel compelled to agree.
Today, in the nature versus nurture game, we tend to be interactionists in our view of schizophrenia. We know it to be a debilitating mental disorder affecting one in 100 people worldwide, that most cases aren’t detected until a person starts experiencing symptoms like delusions and hallucinations as a teenager or adult. And by that time, the disease has often progressed so far that it can be difficult to treat.
Now new research published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry offers the first evidence that early neonatal brain development may be abnormal in males at genetic risk fo schizophrenia.
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 new findings were detectable in babies only a few weeks old.
“It allows us to start thinking about how we can identify kids at risk for schizophrenia very early and whether there things that we can do very early on to lessen the risk,” says lead study author John H. Gilmore, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the UNC Schizophrenia Research Center.
“Could it be that enlargement is an early marker of a brain that’s going to be different?” Gilmore speculates.
No difference was found 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, o course, 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.
“This is just the very beginning,” said Gilmore. “We’re following these children through childhood.”
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.