Breakthrough in Schizophrenia Research

  • What if drug companies could create medications that completely stopped hallucinations? Barring a schizophrenia vaccine, which isn't likely in the near future, targeting the areas of the brain responsible for causing these symptoms would greatly improve the life quality of people living with this illness.

     

    According to a study in the August issue of Radiology, for the first time researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and discovered structural and functional abnormalities in certain brain regions of people with schizophrenia who suffer chronic auditory hallucinations.

     

    Functional abnormalities and corresponding gray matter deficits were shown in brain regions linked with regulating emotion and processing human voices.

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    Dr. Marti-Bonmati is quoted, "Using MRI to mark brain regions that are affected in both structure and function will help pinpoint specific abnormalities associated with the disease and ultimately enable more effective treatment."

     

    As of yet, some people who take meds have total symptom relief, and others have symptoms even though they swallow pills. To target treatment to each person's individual brain is perhaps the stuff of fantasy, yet we need to think in such terms to be able to envision solutions that one day could come to a pharmacy near you.

     

    Right now, a machine exists that you can wear on your head to simulate what it's like to hear voices, so that someone who doesn't have schizophrenia can live such an experience temporarily. My friend Kurt, who wore the machine for one day, became disoriented and confused during simple transactions such as going to the drug store or eating in a restaurant.

     

    On Sunday, sitting in the cabin of my parents boat, I could hear a cacophony of voices outside in the night. It was so loud it sounded like I was hearing voices that weren't there. They were loud and off-key, shrill and mellifluous, all at once, nonstop. For a good fifteen minutes, I couldn't concentrate on what I was doing.

     

    When I got sick, I also was unable to shut off or screen out external stimuli. Real voices were louder, more threatening, and I interpreted the true words in a way that signaled danger even though none existed.

     

    I have a friend who hallucinated voices that sounded real, and I know someone who heard voices for 10 years before getting symptom relief. Here's another fantasy realm idea: what if parents took a "brain print" of their kids' brain, just like they take their kids fingerprints to ID them if something happens? So that if someone got sick, they could compare the old and new brain to try to create a custom treatment?

     

    Are people with schizophrenia born with abnormalities in the brain? If so, this begs the question as to whether treating someone before he gets an episode would help prevent a full-blown psychosis. And if these regions of the brain go awry gradually, over the course of the years, could we develop a treatment that "unkinks" the direction before it becomes completed?

     

    The Spring 2007 Doctor Bob column in Schizophrenia Digest answers the question: "What makes people hear voices and see images that aren't there?" Dr. Robert Liberman gives a jargon-free response: "Hallucinations . . . are produced by hyperactivity or hyperexcitability of the parts of the brain responsible for hearing (the auditory cortex) or seeing (the visual cortex).

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    Ordinarily, when we hear things other people also hear, the auditory cortex is effected, but by "external stimulation from sound waves that travel through the ear and into the brain." Perhaps the hallucinations are organic if flawed responses that come from inside the brain. Do drugs target these regions of the brain? If not, shouldn't ones be developed that do?

     

    According to Dr. Bob, "People whose auditory cortex is hypersensitive or hyperexcitable often suffer from schizophrenia or some other psychotic disease."

     

    I've long ago made peace with the truth that I have schizophrenia; to say this is liberating; to be accepted by others who know this is divine. Reading about the latest research and arming myself with the knowledge about the origin of hallucinations has allowed me to reconcile that the good doctors get it right: I may not have heard voices, but I had something going on in my brain that magnified other people's voices as if I were hearing them from inside my own head.

     

    That's how it was for me, and even today, on the bus or subway, or out on the street, when there's a loud commotion and people are acting rowdy, it scares me more than it should, because I dislike noisy crowds.

     

    Here's another fantasy idea: what if we developed some kind of monitor that would regulate the amount of the drug we received based on whether we had more or less symptoms that day, or our brains were acting differently at that time?

     

    Let's face it: the pharmaceutical industry is a billion-dollar market. Nobody there has a vested interest in finding a schizophrenia vaccine, except for patients and their caregivers. It goes back to my contention that we have to lobby for the funds, and get our elected officials to see that this is a growing 21st century problem that requires ongoing, state-of-the-art research.

     

    One in five people has a mental illness. That's one person too many. Until schizophrenia is just a memory, I want to send you best wishes and a whole lot of hope that things can get better, if only we press on.

     

Published On: August 06, 2007