Newswise — New York, NY (April 18, 2013) — An excess of the brain neurotransmitter glutamate may cause a transition to psychosis in people who are at risk for schizophrenia, reports a study from investigators at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) published in the current issue of Neuron.
The findings suggest 1) a potential diagnostic tool for identifying those at risk for schizophrenia and 2) a possible glutamate-limiting treatment strategy to prevent or slow progression of schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders. “Previous studies of schizophrenia have shown that hypermetabolism and atrophy of the hippocampus are among the most prominent changes in the patient’s brain,” said senior author Scott Small, MD, Boris and Rose Katz Professor of Neurology at CUMC. “The most recent findings had suggested that these changes occur very early in the disease, which may point to a brain process that could be detected even before the disease begins.”
To locate that process, the Columbia researchers used neuroimaging tools in both patients and a mouse model. First they followed a group of 25 young people at risk for schizophrenia to determine what happens to the brain as patients develop the disorder. In patients who progressed to schizophrenia, they found the following pattern: First, glutamate activity increased in the hippocampus, then hippocampus metabolism increased, and then the hippocampus began to atrophy.
To see if the increase in glutamate led to the other hippocampus changes, the researchers turned to a mouse model of schizophrenia. When the researchers increased glutamate activity in the mouse, they saw the same pattern as in the patients: The hippocampus became hypermetabolic and, if glutamate was raised repeatedly, the hippocampus began to atrophy.
Theoretically, this dysregulation of glutamate and hypermetabolism could be identified through imaging individuals who are either at risk for or in the early stage of disease. For these patients, treatment to control glutamate release might protect the hippocampus and prevent or slow the progression of psychosis.
Strategies to treat schizophrenia by reducing glutamate have been tried before, but with patients in whom the disease is more advanced. “Targeting glutamate may be more useful in high-risk people or in those with early signs of the disorder,” said Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD, a renowned expert in the field of schizophrenia, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at CUMC, and president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association. “Early intervention may prevent the debilitating effects of schizophrenia, increasing recovery in one of humankind’s most costly mental disorders.”
In an accompanying commentary, Bita Moghaddam, professor of neuroscience and of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, suggests that if excess glutamate is driving schizophrenia in high-risk individuals, it may also explain why a patient’s first psychotic episodes are often caused by periods of stress, since stress increases glutamate levels in the brain.
The other authors of “Imaging Patients with Psychosis and a Mouse Model Establishes a Spreading Pattern of Hippocampal Dysfunction and Implicates Glutamate as a Driver” are: Scott A. Schobel (CUMC, The New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI), F. Hoffman–La Roche); Nashid H. Chaudhury (Yale University School of Medicine); Usman A. Khan (CUMC, SUNY Downstate Medical Center); Beatriz Paniagua (CUMC); Martin A. Styner (CUMC); Iris Asllani (CUMC); Benjamin P. Inbar (NYSPI); Cheryl M. Corcoran (CUMC, NYSPI); and Holly Moore (CUMC).
S.A. Schobel is currently a full-time employee of F. Hoffmann-La Roche, Ltd. Dr. Schobel’s work on this study began when he was an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia and prior to his employment at Roche. The remaining authors declare no financial or other conflicts of interest.
This research was supported by the Brain and Behavior Research Fund Young Investigator Grant (http://www.bbrfoundation.org), the Paul Janssen Fellowship in Translational Neuroscience Research, and NIMH K23MH090563 (S.A. Schobel); the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NIH, through Grant Number UL1 TR000040, formerly the National Center for Research Resources, Grant Number UL1 RR024156 (S.A. Schobel; C.M.C.); NIMH K23MH066279 and R21MH086125 (C.M.C.); P40 HD03110 and U54 EB005149 (M.A.S, B.P.); the Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation and P50 MH086385 (H.M.); the Broitman Foundation and 1R01MH093398-01 (S.A. Small); and the New York State Ofﬁce of Mental Hygiene. ####
Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and New York State Psychiatric InstituteColumbia Psychiatry is ranked among the best departments and psychiatric research facilities in the Nation and has contributed greatly to the understanding of and current treatment for psychiatric disorders. Located at the New York State Psychiatric Institute on the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center campus in the Washington Heights community of Upper Manhattan, the department enjoys a rich and productive collaborative relationship with physicians in various disciplines at Columbia University’s College of Physician and Surgeons. Columbia Psychiatry is home to distinguished clinicians and researchers noted for their clinical and research advances in the diagnosis and treatment of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorders, and childhood psychiatric disorders. http://columbiapsychiatry.org
The Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University Medical Center is a multidisciplinary group that has forged links between researchers and clinicians to uncover the causes of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other age-related brain diseases and to discover ways to prevent and cure these diseases. It has partnered with the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center at Columbia University Medical Center, which was established by an endowment in 1977 to focus on diseases of the nervous system, and with the Departments of Pathology & Cell Biology and of Neurology to allow the seamless integration of genetic analysis, molecular and cellular studies, and clinical investigation to explore all phases of diseases of the nervous system. For more information visit The Taub Institute at http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/taub/.
Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, pre-clinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and state and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit cumc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.