Brain abnormality indicates general risk for mental illness

A new study by researchers at Duke University reports an abnormality in visual regions of the brain that is associated with a person’s general risk for mental illness. The findings, published in Biological Psychiatry, indicate a signature abnormality shared between common forms of mental illness, which could help clinicians assess a patient’s general risk for developing a mental illness. The signature abnormality was present in participants involved in the study who already had a higher risk of mental illness. This was characterized by a reduced efficiency between visual areas and brain networks important for integrating sensory information and suppressing distracting information.

Researchers have long thought that some aspects of the biology of the risk for psychiatric disorders were specific to particular disorders, and by studying specific groups of patients, may have mistaken general risk factors as specific risk factors. Newer research suggests that a person’s risk for developing mental illness is not specific to one form of disorder, but is instead shared across many different disorders. “In other words, there may be a single risk factor that predicts whether an individual develops any form of psychiatric disorder, be it depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, or even schizophrenia,” said first author Maxwell Elliott, a doctoral student in the laboratory of Ahmad Hariri, PhD.

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Resilience counteracts effects of childhood abuse and neglect on health

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have determined that psychological resilience has a positive effect on health outcomes for people living with schizophrenia. This is the first study to quantitatively assess the effects of both childhood trauma and psychological resilience on health and metabolic function in people living with schizophrenia.

Globally 1 percent of people suffer from schizophrenia, a chronic and severe mental disorder that can affect all types of people and greatly impacts how a person thinks, feels and behaves. The psychiatric symptoms are typically treated with antipsychotic drugs; however, persons with schizophrenia are also more vulnerable to physical disorders, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease and premature death. Although the cause of schizophrenia is not entirely known, the disorder is linked to genetic and environmental risk factors, including childhood adversity.

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Amygdala neurons increase as children become adults — except in autism

In a striking new finding, researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute found that typically-developing children gain more neurons in a region of the brain that governs social and emotional behavior, the amygdala, as they become adults. This phenomenon does not happen in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Instead, children with ASD have too many neurons early on and then appear to lose those neurons as they become adults. The findings were published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped group of 13 regions (nuclei) that work as a danger detector in the brain to regulate anxiety and social interactions. Amygdala dysfunction has been linked to many psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders, including ASD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

“The amygdala is a unique brain structure in that it grows dramatically during adolescence, longer than other brain regions, as we become more socially and emotionally mature,” said Cynthia Schumann, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UC Davis MIND Institute and senior author of the paper. “Any deviation from this normal path of development can profoundly influence human behavior.” To understand what cellular factors underlie amygdala development, the team studied 52 postmortem human brains, both neurotypical and ASD, ranging from 2 to 48 years of age.

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Childhood trauma link offers treatment hope for people with schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia may now benefit from more effective, tailored treatments and greater self-empowerment, thanks to research establishing a link between childhood trauma and some of schizophrenia’s most common symptoms.

Researchers from Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence for Youth Mental Health; the University of Melbourne; Port Phillip Prison and University Hospital of Gran Canaria Dr Negrin, Spain, have shown that childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse are associated with severe hallucinations in schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

The study’s strongest finding was that hallucinations in those with psychotic disorders were associated with all types of childhood trauma, said Dr Sarah Bendall, the study’s lead author and head of trauma research at Orygen. “This means there’s something about childhood trauma that leads some people to develop hallucinations,” Dr Bendall said.

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Suspect Molecules Overlap in Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

Evidence has been mounting that some mental disorders share many of the same genetic risk factors. Now, researchers have discovered that this overlap extends to the molecular level – some of these suspect genes also turn on-and-off similarly in the brains of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. These molecular signatures may hold clues to what goes wrong in the brain in these disorders—and potentially ways to better treat or even prevent them.

In search of such clues, Drs. Daniel Geschwind and Michael Gandalof the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues, examined gene expression in postmortem brains of people who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or alcoholism. One of the largest such efforts of its kind to date, the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), tapped brain molecular data resources gathered through the NIMH-funded PsychENCODE consortium, a data-sharing collaboration among NIMH grantees.

Full story at NIMH

Suspect Molecules Overlap in Autism, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder

Evidence has been mounting that some mental disorders share many of the same genetic risk factors. Now, researchers have discovered that this overlap extends to the molecular level – some of these suspect genes also turn on-and-off similarly in the brains of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. These molecular signatures may hold clues to what goes wrong in the brain in these disorders—and potentially ways to better treat or even prevent them.

In search of such clues, Drs. Daniel Geschwind and Michael Gandalof the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues, examined gene expression in postmortem brains of people who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or alcoholism. One of the largest such efforts of its kind to date, the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), tapped brain molecular data resources gathered through the NIMH-funded PsychENCODE consortium, a data-sharing collaboration among NIMH grantees.

Full story at NIMH

Molecular secrets revealed: Antipsychotic docked in its receptor

Antipsychotic drugs — which transformed mental health care following their chance discovery in the mid-20th Century — may finally be poised for a long-overdue makeover incorporating structure-based design. Scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health have achieved a landmark of psychiatric neuropharmacology: deciphering the molecular structure of a widely prescribed antipsychotic docked in its key receptor. They are hopeful that this discovery may hold secrets to designing better treatments for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses.

“For the first time, we can understand precisely how atypical antipsychotic drugs bind to their primary molecular target in the human brain,” explained Dr. Laurie Nadler, chief of the neuropharmacology program at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which co-funded the study along with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Cancer Institute. “This discovery opens the way for the rational design of a new generation of antipsychotic drugs, hopefully with more desirable effects and fewer side effects.”

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Life in the city: Living near a forest keeps your amygdala healthier

A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers’ homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban planners among others.

Noise, pollution, and many people in a confined space: Life in a city can cause chronic stress. City dwellers are at a higher risk of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia than country dwellers. Comparisons show higher activity levels in city dwellers’ than in country dwellers’ amygdala — a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger. Which factors can have a protective influence? A research team led by psychologist Simone Kühn has examined which effects nature near people’s homes such as forest, urban green, or wasteland has on stress-processing brain regions such as the amygdala. “Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development. Studies of people in the countryside have already shown that living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being. We therefore decided to examine city dwellers,” explains first author Simone Kühn, who led the study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE).

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Schizophrenia disrupts the brain’s entire communication system, researchers say

Some 40 years since CT scans first revealed abnormalities in the brains of schizophrenia patients, international scientists say the disorder is a systemic disruption to the brain’s entire communication system.

The study, published in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry on Oct.17, sets the stage for future research on the debilitating mental illness that, according to the World Health Organization, affects more than 21 million people worldwide.

It is the largest analysis of “white matter” (fatty brain tissue enabling neurons to talk to each other) differences in a psychiatric disorder to date and was made possible by a federal grant to the Keck School of Medicine of USC. The study displaces a theory that schizophrenia manifests due to wiring problems in only the prefrontal and temporal lobes. These front-facing areas of the brain are responsible for personality, decision-making and hearing perception.

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Psychologists give new insight into the nature of psychosis

A week after the government announced its review of mental health legislation, an expert report published by the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology on Friday 13 October challenges received wisdom about the nature of mental illness.

The report, Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia: Why people sometimes hear voices, believe things that others find strange or appear out of touch with reality, and what can help, has been written by a group of eminent clinical psychologists drawn from eight universities and six NHS trusts, together with people who have themselves experienced psychosis. It provides an accessible overview of the current state of knowledge, and its conclusions have profound implications both for the way we understand ‘mental illness’ and for the future of mental health services.

Many people believe that schizophrenia is a frightening brain disease that makes people unpredictable and potentially violent, and can only be controlled by medication. However this report — a revised version of one published in 2014 by the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology — suggests that this view is false.

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