Study Clarifies Schizophrenic Brain Functions
> 1/23/2009 3:29:36 PM

A newly released MIT/Harvard study appears to reveal the neurological source of the confusion and incoherency so common to schizophrenic subjects. The study's authors hope their conclusions will point toward the development of more effective antipsychotic treatments. 


The most visible sign of schizophrenia, which is a largely genetic disorder that affects approximately 1 percent of the general population, is a chronic inability to differentiate the "real world" from self-generated fantasy - and researchers conclude that its primary cause is a basic malformation of the brain's default system, an interconnected series of links that includes parts of the prefrontal and posterior cortexes and serves as the center for introspection and self-scrutiny. This network regulates the accumulation of autobiographical data while also helping to guide the train of aimless associations that occur when the mind is allowed to wander (hence its "default" tag). Researchers ran fMRI brain scans on three groups of subjects: schizophrenic individuals themselves, the immediate relatives of affected individuals and control subjects. And they observed telling differences in the brain functions of these three groups as they performed various memory tests. 


Unaffected brains do not use their default systems when performing complex mental tasks as it distracts from the cognitive processes at hand by directing nearly all thoughts toward the self. But the schizophrenic brain's default system is perpetually active, and this state of constant hyperconnectivity facilitates the schizophrenic's inability to remove him or herself from a given circumstance and make objective evaluations or computations. The condition truly does amount to an inescapable cognitive box, and the inverted perspective that it creates makes the acts of communicating with others and managing one's own daily life far more difficult. The schizophrenic brain is not disabled, per se, but nearly all of its functions are skewed because this minor malformation occurs in such an elemental part of the brain. 


We've long known that the irregularities of the schizophrenic mind are more neurological than personal in nature. But never has this theory been so directly tested. The most significant aspect of the study's conclusions is that they contradict popular thinking on the neurological aspects of the disorder. While accepted opinion holds that incomplete neural pathways or "missed connections" create the confusions that characterize schizophrenia, the study paints a picture of overconnected networks filled with too many crisscrossing messages that focus, to an obsessive degree, on the self.  


Even more importantly, this study and others like it that aim to clarify the physical mechanisms behind schizophrenia will eventually enable researchers and doctors to more accurately predict the ways in which affected subjects react to certain medications and circumstances and to tailor their treatment plans accordingly. It can also help family members and peers better understand their behaviors. Unfortunately, the disorder remains very poorly understood, and unrelated surveys confirm that the everyday biases perceived by schizophrenic individuals are all too real. As we gain a greater understanding of the condition's specific causes, we can only hope that outsiders will grow more tolerant of the millions touched by it.

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