Characterized by behavioral manifestations of bizarre mentation, delusions and hallucinations, schizophrenia is one of the most infamous mental disorders. It typically appears during early adulthood, and scientists believe that the disorder is the product of both environmental and genetic factors. Management involves a mix of behavioral therapy and antipsychotic medication, which often proves ineffective in improving a patient’s condition.

Schizophrenia, as it is understood today, is the product of a long and complex history in academic psychiatry. But despite the significant amount of literature that spans more than a century, the exact neurological mechanisms of the disorder have never been understood. It’s only a recent breakthrough in the neuropathology of schizophrenia that has finally shed light on what happens in the brains of those affected by schizophrenia.

schizophreniaBy extensively studying schizophrenic patients and analyzing the data, scientists were able to see a significant correlation between the onset stage of the disorder and lower levels of the GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitter in the cerebrospinal fluid. This is a significant finding because GABA is responsible for inhibiting brain activity and affects most neurological processes in the brain. Scientists observed that the symptomatology of schizophrenic patients was worse in those with lower GABA levels.

With the aid of positron emission tomography technology, scientists also observed that immune cells in schizophrenic brains were deficient in translocator protein (TSPO). These findings were released in two separate studies, both published in the Molecular Psychiatry journal.

The breakthrough was possible thanks to the large-scale interdisciplinary effort called the Karolinska Schizophrenia Project, which involves researchers from the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, and four psychiatric clinics at the Stockholm County Council. Even though it is not yet known whether these neurological mechanisms cause or are caused by the mental disorder, researchers highlight their importance for the foreseeable development of effective neuropsychiatric drugs to treat schizophrenia. With a deeper understanding of its neuropathology, it could also be possible to develop drugs that would help prevent its onset in the first place.

The Karolinska Schizophrenia Project — led by the Karolinska Institutet — is the first research effort to successfully decipher the neurological mechanisms of schizophrenia. Although the findings are significant on their own, more research is necessary until scientists can begin to make sense of the data for medical application. New studies are already underway to understand how these findings fit into the causal chain that leads to the symptomatic expression of schizophrenia.

A productive effort could help save many lives since schizophrenia entails a reduced life expectancy due to the fact that sufferers tend to be particularly predisposed to suicide. Schizophrenia affects roughly 1% of the population, having already caused 17,000 deaths in 2017.