Two blogs in one:
Some of the blogs will be divided into two parts, the first part will be an overview of the topic to be covered for the general reader. The second part will go into more detail about the research that has been done on the subject.
What the blog will cover
Recent findings in virology, immunology, microbiology, genetics, epigenetics, and so on, as they apply to schizophrenia research, will be covered. That includes the basis of cognitive impairment and negative symptoms (including lack of motivation and social withdrawal) in schizophrenia, and physical health problems associated with schizophrenia and anti-psychotics. The application of artificial intelligence and Big Data (high-volume, high-velocity and/or high-variety information assets) could certainly bring advances in research, diagnosis, and treatment, and I hope that there will be material to cover on these topics, too.
Why write about schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia usually has a devastating life-long impact on those affected and also on their loved ones, throughout their lives. With roughly one percent of the population affected worldwide, almost everyone knows of a person with schizophrenia and many people without the illness are affected in one way or another by the consequences of the condition in those close to them. Somehow, schizophrenia remains shrouded in myths and hidden behind prejudice and stigma, and people with schizophrenia are often left outside society’s mainstream, though the human and economic cost of the illness is enormous.
The hidden face of schizophrenia needs exposure. One way to demystify it and to generate hope for a better life in those affected and, in turn, for those around them, is to spread awareness of exciting new research into its causes, pathogenesis, and treatment. Also, more research funding is needed, and the dissemination of research findings that may lead to more precise diagnoses and better care.
Treatment and unmet needs
Anti-psychotics, the standard treatment for schizophrenia, are sometimes described as “a blunt knife” when it comes to treating the condition. They have broader effects on the central nervous system (CNS: the brain and spinal cord) beyond eliminating psychotic symptoms, often causing unwanted side effects, and even obesity, that both negatively impact physical health and quality of life. Medication that more specifically treats psychosis, and new pharmaceuticals that use novel approaches, are sorely needed. Treatments are also needed that are effective in those who do not respond, or who only respond partially, to the anti-psychotics that are presently available. Also, cognitive impairment (difficulty thinking and making decisions) and negative symptoms in stable patients need to be addressed, since they often reduce their quality of life and ability to live independently.
The challenge of studying the brain
Research on any aspect of the living human brain is challenging, since it is so inaccessible. Insights into its workings are mainly made based on indirect evidence coming from human studies on post-mortem brains, cerebrospinal fluid, which is not readily accessible, epidemiological studies, and also from studies of peripheral blood, and those using animal models and laboratory cell cultures. The animal models allowing for more direct examination of the CNS during the course of induced disorders only mimic schizophrenia and are not identical to it. Brain imaging is also used to study the CNS.
No single cause
A life-long chronic illness, schizophrenia has no cure, and there does not appear to be a single cause. A complexity of possible contributing factors have been identified, and hypotheses abound about the causes of the condition. It has been impossible to determine whether the biological abnormalities observed are causes or consequences of the condition. The disease appears to arise during a long period of development beginning in the womb until it finally declares itself in late adolescence or early adulthood. Research suggests that factors contributing to the causes of schizophrenia include genetic susceptibility, immune system abnormalities, biological processes triggered in the fetus, and environmental factors that come into play during childhood and adolescence, including infections, but also early life stress and social defeat, with symptoms appearing in late adolescence or early adulthood, resulting in a chronic illness that lasts a lifetime.
Scientist at work By Isaiah Maghanga – Scientist at work (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0. Available on Wikimedia commons.