Study Finds Inflammation in the Brain Is Linked to Risk of Schizophrenia

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  • Credit: MRC's Clinical Sciences Centre.

    PET imaging signal in healthy volunteers, high-risk subjects and patients with schizophrenia showing a stepwise elevation in microglial activity (orange) as severity of illness increases.

  • Credit: MRC's Clinical Sciences Centre.

    PET imaging signal in healthy volunteers, high-risk subjects and patients with schizophrenia showing a stepwise elevation in microglial activity (orange) as severity of illness increases.

  • Credit: MRC's Clinical Sciences Centre.

    Microglia, the brain’s immune cells (green) with cell nuclei (red).

  • Credit: MRC's Clinical Sciences Centre

    PET imaging signal in healthy volunteers, high-risk subjects and patients with schizophrenia showing a stepwise elevation in microglial activity (orange) as severity of illness increases.

  • Credit: MRC's Clinical Sciences Centre

    PET imaging signal in healthy volunteers, high-risk subjects and patients with schizophrenia showing a stepwise elevation in microglial activity (orange) as severity of illness increases.

  • Credit: MRC's Clinical Sciences Centre

    Microglia, the brain’s immune cells (green) with cell nuclei (red).

Newswise — A study, published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry, is the first to find that immune cells are more active in the brains of people at risk of schizophrenia* as well as those already diagnosed with the disease.

The finding could completely change our current understanding of schizophrenia, raising the possibility that testing people most at risk of the disorder ahead of time could allow them to be treated early enough to avoid its most severe symptoms**.

Researchers at the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Clinical Sciences Centre, based at Imperial College London, in collaboration with colleagues at King’s College London used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure levels of activity of immune cells in the brain. These cells, known as microglia, respond to damage and infection in the brain, and are also responsible for rearranging the connections between brain cells so that they work as well as possible; a process known as pruning.

The team tested a group of 56 people including those already diagnosed with schizophrenia, those at risk of the disease and those with no symptoms or risk of thedisorder. They found that activity levels of microglia in the brain increased according to the severity of symptoms in people with schizophrenia and that people with diagnosed schizophrenia had high levels of activity of these immune cells in their brain.

Peter Bloomfield, lead author of the study at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, said: “Our findings are particularly exciting because it was previously unknown whether these cells become active before or after onset of the disease.

“Now we have shown this early involvement, mechanisms of the disease and new medications can hopefully be uncovered.”

Dr Oliver Howes, head of the psychiatric imaging group at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, added: “Schizophrenia is a potentially devastating disorder and we desperately need new treatments to help sufferers, and ultimately to prevent it.

“This is a promising study as it suggests that inflammation may lead to schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. We now aim to test whether anti-inflammatory treatments can target these. This could lead to new treatments or even prevention of the disorders altogether.”

Professor Hugh Perry, Chair of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Board at the MRC, added “Schizophrenia, like other mental health disorders, is a complex disease that we know is caused by an interplay of genetic, behavioural and other contributing factors.

“This study adds to a growing body of research that inflammation in the brain could be one of the factors contributing to a range of disorders – including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and depression - and with this new knowledge comes the hope of life-changing treatments.”

The research was funded by the MRC and King’s College London.

-ENDS-

Notes to editors:

• Microglial Activity in People at Ultra High Risk of Psychosis and in Schizophrenia: An [11C]PBR28 PET Brain Imaging Study by P Bloomfield, O Howes et al, is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and you will be able to view it here once it goes live.

• There are some very good images for this paper.

• Contact: For further information, to request an interview with a researcher or see a copy of the paper, please contact the MRC press office on 0207 395 2345 or email press.office@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk

*Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness which affects around one in 100 people in the UK. It is one of the leading causes of disability in adults and sufferers die, on average, 20 years early, compared with those who do not have the disease.

**Symptoms include hallucinations, thoughts that are not based in reality and paranoia, alongside depression and social withdrawal.

The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-one MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. www.mrc.ac.uk

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