Structural brain imaging in individuals at high familial risk of schizophrenia
Bois, Catherine Linnea
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Schizophrenia is often a debilitating psychiatric disorder, characterised by both positive and negative symptoms, and cognitive and psychosocial impairments. The established disorder has been associated with a number of brain abnormalities, however it is at present unknown whether these brain changes occur prior to onset of schizophrenia, or in unaffected relatives with a familial vulnerability to develop the disorder, or only in those at high risk that go on to develop the disorder. Furthermore, most studies have been conducted cross-sectionally, which may have obscured subtle longitudinal changes in familial high risk individuals, and these studies tend to have focused on localized cortical gray matter , and thus it is unclear whether they affect different cortical parameters differentially. Prospective familial high risk studies utilizing surface based MRI programmes provide a good method to investigate this. In the Edinburgh High Risk Study, structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 150 young individuals at familial high risk of schizophrenia, 34 patients with first-episode schizophrenia and 36 matched controls were obtained. Of the high risk participants with scans suitable for analysis, 17 developed schizophrenia after the scans were taken, whilst 57 experienced isolated or sub-clinical psychotic symptoms, and 70 remained well. We used Freesurfer to extract volumetric and surface-based measurements of several cortical and localized sub-cortical regions with the aim of assessing whether any alterations found were present in all those at high risk, or selectively in the high risk cohort based on future clinical outcome, or only in those experiencing their first-episode of psychosis. It was found that those experiencing their first episode of schizophrenia exhibited significantly more widespread brain alterations compared to those at high risk or controls, both on a more global cortical level and in more localized regions of the cortex, with cortical thickness being generally thinner than in the other groups, and cortical surface area and gyrification increased compared to the other groups. An increased global surface area was also shared with the HR[ill] group, suggesting that this could be a marker that is predictive of future transition to psychosis. Within the high risk cohort, some brain alterations seemed to present as general vulnerability markers, specifically in the temporal lobe at baseline, whilst longitudinally both localized and global cortical alterations distinguished the high risk cohort from the control group, and a different developmental trajectory of the hippocampus was also found. These findings show that some brain alterations may be more accurately characterized as general vulnerability markers of the disorder, whilst some are specifically present in patients who have experienced their first episode of schizophrenia, whilst some also occur before disorder onset in those at high risk that go on to develop schizophrenia. The findings have some clinical implications, as they suggest that it is possible to assess who at high risk will go on to develop schizophrenia based on brain structural alterations. This may provide clinicians with an early window of opportunity for intervention, as it has been found that early intervention may improve patient's prognosis. The findings also have important implications for the understanding of the underlying eitology of schizophrenia, as they suggest that some of these alterations are present before illness onset, and not associated with medication effects, thus potentially lying on the causal path of developing schizophrenia.