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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 22:57 GMT 23:57 UK
Schizophrenics suffer brain 'forest fire'
brain whole
The grey matter of the brain was destroyed
A wave of tissue damage rolling across the brain has been spotted by doctors scanning the head of a teenage schizophrenic.

They suggest that scientists should be looking for ways to halt this rapid loss of brain tissue, likened by one professor to a "forest fire".

The team from the University of California in Los Angeles used repeated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure the progress of the disease in a number of young patients.

Schizophrenia typically shows itself during the late teens or early 20s, although doctors are not sure why it starts, or what causes it.

It generally strikes without any pre-warning, causing delusions, depression, and sometimes psychotic thoughts.

Grey matter loss

The Californian team used a new way of analysing MRI images to reveal very subtle changes in brain matter.

They found that in healthy teenagers, approximately 1% of tissue called "grey matter" is lost each year from a part of the brain called the parietal regions - the outer regions of the brain.

It moved across the brain like a forest fire, destroying more tissue as the disease progressed

Professor Paul Thompson, UCLA
However, in schizophrenics, they detected accelerated grey matter loss - over six years, the patients lost 10% in the parietal region.

In addition, this destructive process spread to other parts of the brain, with areas such as the temporal lobe, and areas which control the senses and movement - particularly eye movement, particularly affected.

The brain fields responsible for eye movement lost as much as 5% of their grey matter a year.

These findings would tally with many of the symptoms, such as involuntary eye movement, frequently felt by schizophrenics.

Professor Paul Thompson, at UCLA, said: "This is the first study to visualise how schizophrenia develops in the brain.

"Scientists have been perplexed about how schizophrenia progresses and whether there are any physical changes in the brain.

"It moved across the brain like a forest fire, destroying more tissue as the disease progressed."

Hope for early test

Patients who had the worst tissue loss also suffered the worst schizophrenic symptoms, and the doctors are excited about how this "time-lapse" MRI scanning has uncovered distinct physical changes which can be linked to the disease.

They say the knowledge might be used to help spot schizophrenia patients early so that treatment can be given.

However, at the moment, there are no medications which address the rapid loss of brain tissue.

The research was published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See also:

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