Visualizing Schizophrenia

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Paul Thompson is professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and leads the research group at the school’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. He uses imaging technology to map disease processes involving the human brain, carried out in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and more than 40 laboratories around the world. A goal is to create disease-specific atlases of the brain that can aid in the diagnosis, treatment and possible prevention of illnesses like schizophrenia.

Q: Your team has found evidence of significant and progressive brain damage in people with schizophrenia. What areas of the brain are affected, and how does this account for symptoms?

A: The damage in schizophrenia appears specific to two basic areas: the parietal cortex and the frontal lobe.

The parietal cortex is located just above the temple area by the ears; it’s the part of the brain that makes sense of what we hear, see, taste or touch — essentially, our sensory experience. We know about differences in function between a normal parietal cortex and a damaged one from people who have suffered brain trauma. They can’t make sense of what something is. They may be given an apple or an orange, and they can see it and touch it, but they can’t name it or understand its purpose.

The frontal lobe helps us organize our lives, go to work, analyze information and make decisions. This area of the brain is where teenagers have the most developmental changes — a process of pruning excess cells and streamlining brain function until it reaches its adult form around age 25. This reshaping process seems to go profoundly awry in young people with schizophrenia. Instead of healthy pruning, you see massive loss of brain tissue. Because the frontal cortex is also the part of the brain that prevents you from doing things that are rash, a result of this damage is that people with schizophrenia may behave in a bizarre way; they may shout in public or react in an exaggerated way to minor upsets. Ten percent of schizophrenia patients die by suicide.

by Irene Wielawski, New York Times

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