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Schizophrenia: Mystery of the Mind
By Hilary Gibson, Staff Writer
(Page 2 of 3)

The nature of schizophrenia is one of unpredictability, with the first signs of the disease appearing as radical and disturbing changes in behavior along with confusion on the part of the loved one who is afflicted. As with most diseases of the brain, like Alzheimer’s or bi-polar disease, it is especially difficult for family members to witness these changes, because they hold on to the memory of how their loved one behaved prior to the onset of the disease. During the “acute” phase of the disease, there may be a sudden start of psychotic symptoms or “psychosis” like hallucinations, delusions, and social isolation. Unusual speech, thought patterns and behavior may precede, coincide or follow these psychotic symptoms. Some people may only have one, major, psychotic episode in their life, while others may have many occurrences throughout their lifetime, yet lead relatively normal lives during the periods between these episodes. But people who have “chronic” schizophrenia, which is continuous or recurring, do not necessarily recover their full capability of normal functioning, and so require long-term treatment and medications to control the severity and frequency of the episodes.

 Making a quick and proper diagnosis of schizophrenia can be difficult, because similar symptoms can be caused by an underlying physical illness or by other brain diseases like manic-depressive (bi-polar disease) disorder or major depressive disorder. This is why a physical exam along with laboratory tests must be done in order to rule out other possible causes before concluding that it’s schizophrenia. Drug tests may also be performed on the urine and blood, since some commonly abused drugs can cause symptoms that resemble schizophrenia. Sometimes the symptoms just can’t be defined as being caused by one, certain brain disease, so a diagnosis of “schizoaffective disorder” may be given instead. To date, there is still no exact known cause of schizophrenia, but it has long been thought that perhaps genetics has something to do with a loved one’s predisposition for having the disease. Studies have shown that people who have a close relative with the disease are more likely to develop the disease than someone without a diagnosed relative. Presently, all the tools of biomedical research are being utilized in order to understand what causes schizophrenia.  Research is being done to locate multiple genes which may contribute to the disease, as well as mapping the history of an individual’s brain development, including any prenatal difficulties, intrauterine viral infections, and/or postnatal complications. Currently,  there is no way of accurately predicting whether someone will or will not develop the disease.

 Advances in neuroimaging technology have enabled scientists to study brain structure and function in living individuals. Many of these studies on people with schizophrenia have shown abnormalities in the structure of the brain, like the enlargement of fluid-filled cavities (ventricles) within the interior of the brain, and/or the decrease in size of certain brain regions, as well as a decrease in metabolic activity in certain parts of the brain. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these abnormalities are very subtle and are not characteristic of all people with schizophrenia, nor do they occur only in individuals with this disease. There have also been microscopic studies of brain tissue after death, which also show small changes in the distribution or number of brain cells in people with schizophrenia. Many, but not all of these changes in the brain tend to be present in a person before they become ill, which leads to the belief that schizophrenia may be a disorder in the actual development of the brain.

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