In a recent Blog on "Schizophrenia and Residential Issues," (August 3, 2009), there was a discussion of some of the causes of this serious mental illness. Since that Blog was published an exciting new piece of research done at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine was published that presents the possibilities for new forms of treatment. The picture accompanying this article shows neurons that this and the older article discuss.
It seems that mouse brains bear some important similarities to human brains. The research involved the use of mice that were genetically engineered to produce symptoms of schizophrenia mice, similar to what humans experience.
What was discovered was that a brain protein called Kalirin is needed in human brains to build the dense network of dendrites (branches at the end of neurons or nerve cells) that carry messages throughout the body and brain. If there is an inadequate supply of Kalirin, as occurs in the brains of patients with schizophrenia, then there are not enough dendrites developed to carry messages. The result is a traffic jam in the brain. Especially in the frontal lobes of the brain, multiple highways are narrowed down to a single lane from 6 to 7 brain roads. You know what its like when you are stuck in that type of traffic jam. It takes a very long time for the traffic to flow from multiple lanes down into one.
In the brains of people with schizophrenia the messaged flowing along the nerve pathways are jammed and taking too long to travel. Lots of distortion and miscommunication occurs.
Those familiar with schizophrenia know the results of the traffic jam. Thinking, reasoning, judgement, and sensory experiences are all distorted, preventing the individual from becoming a fully integrated and functioning member of society.
The reason why this new research is so exciting is that it could to lead to new and much more successful treatments for this brain disease. At present, the only medications available for schizophrenia are anti psychotic treatments. These suppress hallucinations and somewhat correct delusional thinking. However, the side effects are terrible and the over-all success of these medications leave a lot to be desired on the part of patients with the disease and their families.
On the other hand, new treatments based on these latest findings, could correct the communication process in the brain. Perhaps this could occur from the stimulation of the growth of new dendrites, ending the traffic jam and clearing the communication path that is jammed in those with this disease.
Are we talking possible cure? Maybe! However, much work must continue. All of the new research into how the brain develops and functions is very exciting. It is possible to imagine a time in the future when much of human emotional or psychiatric suffering can end. This will not happen today or tomorrow. But, the day after tomorrow? What do you think?
All readers are invited to share experiences with schizophrenia as well as the other mental illnesses. It is fine if these experiences happened to you personally or to a loved one, family member or dear friend. Have you recovered from a psychotic episode? Do you want to write about the experience? If yes, we invite you and all others to do so.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.