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Schizophrenia is a chronic psychiatric disorder. It affects how a person behaves, thinks, feels, and interacts with the world and the people around them.

Symptoms first appear in a person’s teenage years or early 20s. Today, scientists believe the earliest signs of the condition develop even earlier and that they’re visible on images of the brain.

In fact, recent research has been able to pinpoint differences between the brains of people with schizophrenia and those of neurotypical people, or people without the disorder. However, research is ongoing.

In this article, learn how schizophrenia affects a person’s brain. Plus, learn what treatments might help stop or slow the changes to the brain.

The brain is a complex organ made up of tissues that house all the important components of brain activity, from neurons to nerve fibers.

Compared with a neurotypical person, a person with schizophrenia has detectable changes to the brain. These changes are noticeable in the regions of white and gray matter that make up the brain’s primary tissues.

gray matter

Gray matter is the part of the brain that contains nerve cells. It covers the surface of the brain and helps to control muscles, hearing, sensory perception, and more.

Brain imaging shows that people with schizophrenia have less gray matter volume, especially in the temporal and frontal lobes. These areas of the brain are important for thinking and judgment.

What’s more, gray matter loss continues over time. The greater the brain tissue loss, the higher the likelihood of severe symptoms.

white matter

White matter is deeper in the brain’s tissues, below gray matter. It contains nerve fibers and nerve cells, which are vital for signaling all of the body’s activities.

In people with schizophrenia, white matter appears to be damaged or altered, imaging tests show. Research suggests these changes to the brain’s white matter may contribute to the development of schizophrenia.

Neurotransmitters are chemical couriers. They carry messages from the brain’s nerve fibers to all the other cells and nerve fibers in the body. As such, they help control involuntary movements, like breathing, and even your emotional state.

Research suggests two neurotransmitters may play a role in the development of schizophrenia.

Dopamine

Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. It interacts with the brain’s reward center, but it’s also involved with the brain’s psychological functioning. It has an impact on mood, decision-making, and stress response.

The brains of people with schizophrenia appear to be more sensitive to dopamine. In other words, dopamine makes the brain overactive. It can lead to symptoms like hallucinations and delusions.

Glutamate

Like dopamine, glutamate is a neurotransmitter that sends messages from the brain to cells throughout the body. It plays a role in perception and thinking.

But for people with schizophrenia, glutamate has another role. It impacts memory formation and learning.

People at risk for schizophrenia, as well as people with new symptoms, may have too much glutamate activity in specific parts of the brain. It may slow or interfere with memory formation and cognitive function.

Schizophrenia can cause symptoms that are disruptive to social interactions, learning, working, and a variety of other areas of life.

Symptoms of schizophrenia typically show up during teenage years or into someone’s 20s. These are times of transformation and change, which can make spotting the symptoms of schizophrenia more difficult. These changes also often appear gradually, which can make pinpointing the shift hard.

Early signs of schizophrenia can include:

  • volatile relationships or changes to friend circles
  • a drop in grades
  • sudden loss of interest in classes or activities
  • irritability or mood changes
  • difficulty sleeping

Once schizophrenia has developed, people with the condition often experience an array of symptoms.

No two people will have the same experience with these symptoms. That’s likely because white and gray matter loss is unlikely to be identical in two people. The impacts of neurotransmitters will also differ between individuals.

Negative symptoms of schizophrenia

Negative symptoms interfere with a person’s mood or behavior. “Negative” refers to the absence of behaviors. These include:

Positive symptoms of schizophrenia

Positive symptoms are also known as psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia. These are less common, but they are typically more “active” if they do occur. These symptoms are often thought to be related to overactive dopamine receptors in the brain.

  • changes to senses (seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing)
  • unusual thinking
  • disorganized speech
  • delusions (paranoia)
  • hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices)
  • losing a sense of shared reality
  • movement

Cognitive-symptoms

Schizophrenia can also impact learning, reasoning, and remembering. Schizophrenia makes completing tasks and memory recall difficult. These symptoms include:

  • memory issues
  • inability to use information immediately after learning it
  • inability to focus or pay attention
  • being easily distracted
  • having difficulty making decisions

There is no test or diagnostic tool that can definitively diagnose schizophrenia. Instead, diagnosing the disorder relies on excluding other possible conditions. A doctor will rule out potential causes of the symptoms, including clinical depression and brain injury.

However, research reveals that another tool might be helpful for diagnosing schizophrenia: brain imaging.

One older study suggests that brain imaging technology can detect early changes in the brain that may signal the development of schizophrenia. These changes may be detected before any early symptoms have developed.

Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect the following changes:

  • gray matter losses
  • white matter changes
  • changes to the temporal lobe volume
  • abnormalities in the front and temporal lobes

With standards for understanding the brain changes in people with schizophrenia, doctors may be able to diagnose the illness more easily. They may also be able to detect early changes in people at high risk of developing the condition.

Schizophrenia is a chronic and progressive condition. It is associated with a reduced life expectancy. People with the condition live about 15 years old on average than neurotypical individuals.

Changes to the brain continue with age. Without treatment, people with schizophrenia may experience more serious symptoms.

However, effective treatments are available. When part of a treatment plan, these treatments can help people engage in many activities, including work, school, and personal relationships.

There is no cure for schizophrenia. Current treatments for the condition aim to manage symptoms. They may also help solve some of the functioning problems that make day-to-day living more difficult for people with the illness.

Treatments for schizophrenia fall into two primary categories: medications and therapy.

Medication

Antipsychotic medications work by blocking dopamine activity. As a result, symptoms are less severe and less frequent.

However, dopamine blockers are not an effective treatment for negative or cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia. Plus, these don’t work in about one third of people with schizophrenia.

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines may also be prescribed to help treat some of the symptoms and functioning problems associated with schizophrenia.

Psychosocial treatments

Cognitive behavioral therapy will likely be an essential part of any person’s schizophrenia treatment. This type of therapy helps people with the condition learn to cope with stress, frustrations, and cognitive changes.

Social skills training, supported employment, support groups, and family therapy may also be part of a person’s treatment regimen. These programs help people cope with the impacts of the disorder on everyday life.

People who take part in psychosocial treatments are less likely to need hospitalization. They may also prevent relapses with more severe symptoms.

However, sticking to a treatment plan can be difficult for some people, especially individuals with cognitive symptoms. That is why social and family assistance is often needed.

Schizophrenia is a chronic, progressive psychiatric condition. It causes a variety of symptoms, including delusions, lack of motivation, and difficulty forming memories.

Research shows that there are detectable differences in the brains of people with schizophrenia when compared with the brains of people without the condition. Research also suggests these changes may be detectable early before symptoms first appear.

If you believe you are at a higher risk of this condition, talk with a doctor. You may want to ask questions like:

  • Should I be concerned about my risk of schizophrenia?
  • Could imaging tests now detect changes?
  • Would I be eligible to receive imaging tests now?
  • How will I know if changes are the result of schizophrenia or other issues?

Imaging tests are not used today to diagnose or predict schizophrenia. However, your doctor may have valuable information about trials that look at these differences.

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