The new findings appear in the March issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association.
A decline in function in the prefrontal cortex, the "executive" or front part of the brain, is present in high-risk individuals experiencing early symptoms of schizophrenia and may reflect biological changes that precede the onset of diagnosable illness, the study indicates.
Identifying such changes prior to disease onset also may prove useful in determining vulnerability to schizophrenia onset, particularly in those at high risk for the disease, the researchers said.
"We know that individuals who experience symptoms that occur before the disease becomes full-blown demonstrate impaired performance in tasks requiring executive function, attention and working memory, but the neurobiological bases of this remains unclear," said Dr. Aysenil Belger, the study's senior author.
"In looking at the brain activity of high-risk people while they performed some of these tasks, we hoped to identify a neurobiological marker of vulnerability to disease onset, a tool we might use to help assess their risk of developing psychotic symptoms," Belger said. "If such a tool became established, perhaps we could intervene early on in some way to improve whatever pathology it showed."
Belger is an associate professor of psychiatry in UNC's School of Medicine and of psychology in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences.
The study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Unlike standard MRI scans that show anatomical structures in black and white, fMRI offers digitally enhanced color images of brain function, depicting localized changes in blood flow and oxygenation.
Contact: L.H. Lang
University of North Carolina School of Medicine