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Brain imaging study may hold clues to onset of schizophrenia in people at high risk

nance of attention and vigilance, as well as the ability to rapidly discriminate between target events and other non-target distracters, such as the colored squares and objects."

The scanner mapped participants' neural activity in specific brain areas before, during and after the presentation of the visual target events.

"Our goal was to see if the high-risk individuals showed normal brain activity during these executive tasks or whether or not they showed some of the pathology of individuals who already have schizophrenia," Belger said.

The researchers found that when the healthy people make these types of detections and decisions, they activate frontal and mid-brain regions. Chronic schizophrenia patients showed a significant drop in activation of these regions, "thus it appears that they fail to engage these frontal regions," said Belger.

"And we found that the high-risk group and early, or first-episode, schizophrenia group are somewhere in between: It looks like these deficits begin even before they are diagnosed and treated. It suggests that this area of the brain that's important for executive decision-making processes is already altered before disease onset."

The preliminary study represents a "first pass" at determining feasibility of the tool to map tiny differences between patients and controls, Belger said.

"We need to show that the tool is reliable and that, indeed, it's detecting something in the population that it's not detecting in healthy individuals," she added.

"This is also a cross-sectional study, a comparison between groups. It's not longitudinal, as we did not study the same individuals over time. Still, the findings are intriguing; they are suggestive. We still need to know how they actually correlate with schizophrenia onset."

Belger's UNC co-authors were Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, who recently left UNC to become chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University; Dr. Diana Perkins, professor of psychiatry
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Contact: L.H. Lang
llang@med.unc.edu
919-843-9687
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
16-Mar-2005


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