A new Australian study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry provides the, so far, strongest evidence of an association between schizophrenia and immune function, suggesting that schizophrenic patients’ brains could be attacked by the immune system.

Researchers have found elevated levels of inflammation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a key region in the brain that is affected by schizophrenia in 40% of schizophrenics.

Senior researcher Prof Cyndi Shannon Weickert from Neuroscience Research Australia and UNSW, explains: “To find this immune pattern in nearly half of people with schizophrenia raises the possibility that this is in fact a new root cause of the disease.”

Weickert and her team measured immune activity in the brains of schizophrenics and healthy subjects by using the latest genetic tools available.

Weickert comments: “The part of the brain we looked at is indeed ‘in crisis’ in people with schizophrenia. From the types of immune markers we measured it’s like the brain is on red alert.”

Earlier studies focused on an association between early infections and schizophrenia, and Weickert continues: “Unlike previous studies, we have directly measured immune activity in parts of the brain known to be affected by schizophrenia.”

Based on their finding of an overactive immune system in the brains of schizophrenics, the team will continue their research into future schizophrenia treatments that are targeted at immune suppression.

Weickert concludes: “As there are multiple biological root causes of schizophrenia, the fact inflammation occurs in 40% of individuals is huge, and opens up a whole new range of treatment possibilities.”

Written by Petra Rattue