Brain Abnormalities in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

Brain AbnormalitiesSchizophrenia and bipolar disorder have been found to have overlapping symptoms and brain abnormalities.[1] Individuals with either disorder can experience psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions, or various forms of thought disorder, characterized by speech that is rambling and hard to follow.1 Not until recently have the brain abnormalities responsible for psychotic symptoms been identified, and it is still unknown as to whether the same brain abnormalities causing psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia are the same abnormalities that cause psychosis in bipolar disorder.1 However, recent research has begun to clarify these unknowns.1

The brain’s network is a group of interconnected regions that work together to regulate certain functions, including thinking, emotion, and behavior.1 Scientists have found that a network called the emotional salience network is involved in regulating emotional responses.1 This network is directly implicated in an illness called behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia, where the breakdown of this network leads to immodest behaviors, followed by a deterioration in speech, organizational skills, and memory.1

Two other brain networks that have been identified are the default network and the dorsal attention network, which have very different roles than each other.1 The default network is active when we are daydreaming, or not thinking of anything in particular.1 When we daydream, we are actually exploring a variety of thoughts, memories, and ideas, which is called broad-based introspective thinking.1 On the other hand, the dorsal attention network helps us to focus on performing tasks that require concentration and attention.1 When one of these systems is active, the other is much less active.1

More recently, scientists have identified the frontoparietal control network (FPCN), which coordinates the relative activity of the internally-driven default network, as well as the externally responsive dorsal attention network.1 When a person switches from daydreaming to focusing on a specific task, the FPCN allows them to do so.1 Therefore, if the FPCN malfunctioned, could the separation between our internal and external worlds become blurred, leading to psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions?1

A team of researchers from Harvard have been conducting a studies to answer this question.1 Their population suffers from either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder with psychosis.1 Their results were recently published.1

The researchers found that patients with these two illnesses have abnormalities in the function of the FPCN, and the abnormalities are extremely similar.1 Therefore, researchers believe that the psychotic symptoms in both of these disorders involve malfunction of the same brain regions.1

Further questions include: When does this breakdown begin?1 Can we use technology to predict whether an individual will develop psychotic symptoms or not?1 And can we develop specific treatments to reverse the structural and functional changes in the brain regions involved?1 It is the direction of further future research to find out.1

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