Category: Schizophrenia

Intrusive Thoughts Might Be Caused By a Shortage of a Certain Chemical

Don’t Think About It

Most of us know the feeling of being unable to distract ourselves from a particular thought, however much we might want to. Now, scientists might have found the reason why.

In a study carried out at the University of Cambridge, participants were given pairs of words to associate with one another. The words were unrelated in order to ensure that pre-existing associations didn’t have any influence. Participants were then given a word and either a green or a red signal. If it was the former, they would try to recall the other half of the pairing, and if it was the latter, they would try to deliberately suppress the associated term from their mind.

While this test was being carried out, participants’ brains were monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that monitors changes in blood flow, as well as magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which tracks chemical changes.

Participants with the highest concentrations of a chemical known as Gaba in their hippocampus were best at suppressing the unwanted thoughts. Gaba is the brain’s primary inhibiting neurotransmitter, stifling the activities of other cells when it’s released.

“What’s exciting about this is that now we’re getting very specific,” said Professor Michael Anderson, who led the study, in an interview with the BBC. “Before, we could only say ‘this part of the brain acts on that part’, but now we can say which neurotransmitters are likely to be important.”

Scientists explore how the brain handles unwanted thoughts. Image Credit: ColiN00B / Pixabay

Mind Control

A difficulty with or an inability to break free from intrusive and unwanted thoughts are a reality both for neurotypical people and also for those with various types of mental illness. Conditions ranging from obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder to depression and schizophrenia all count this type of behavior among their symptoms.

As such, there are hopes that these findings could offer further insight into the chemical basis of these disorders. At present, much of the research into treatment methods has centered around helping the prefrontal cortex to function normally. However, Anderson believes that figuring out a way to promote Gaba activity in the hippocampus could actually offer more positive results.

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Researchers Used CRISPR to Manipulate the Social Activities of Ants

Ants Marching

Researchers have used the CRISPR technique to manipulate the social activities of ants for a study that will be published in Cell. Two independent teams knocked out the orco (odorant receptor coreceptor) gene in entire colonies of ants, which negated their ability to perceive pheromone signals they use to communicate. Without those cues, they began to exhibit asocial behaviors like leaving the safety of the nest and declining to aid efforts to hunt for food.

Ants possess a whopping 350 genes for odorant receptors, but as they all need to liaise with the orco gene to be effective, they could all be knocked out at once. The two teams chose different ants based on two distinct strategies for proliferating this edit among the colony.

One group chose a species that has no queens, instead procreating using unfertilized eggs that mature as clones, producing ants that are genetically identical. CRISPR was used to edit lone eggs, which produced an entire colony with the desired modification.

Meanwhile, the other team of researchers selected a species known for an unusual trait that sees worker ants graduate to the role of egg-laying pseudoqueen in the event that the former queen dies. The chosen worker ant had its genetic makeup modified being converted into a pseudoqueen and prompted to spawn a new colony.

Superorganism Socialization

The social interactions of ants are fascinating because of the way a colony acts as a single entity. And as such, these amalgamate superorganisms can potentially tell us a lot about the way we humans interface with one another.

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The researchers observed that disabling the orco gene resulted in certain substructures from the ants’ central processing centers going missing. These parts of the brain are essential to their olfactory communications, and it’s not known exactly why they disappeared. Symptomatically, this is analogous to a number of human mental disorders.

The hope is that further research into the biochemistry of ant colony behavior could reveal more about disorders that affect social communication, like depression or schizophrenia. If we can better understand this process as it occurs in an ant’s brain, and then that of the invisible hand moving the colony as superorganism, we might shine a light on how similar changes that affect mammals.

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Researchers Have Discovered a New Possible Cause of Schizophrenia

Understanding Schizophrenia

While often misrepresented in the media, schizophrenia is a disease that can have a major impact on the lives of those living with it. Around the world, 21 million people are currently living with the mental illness, the symptoms of which can include paranoia, auditory and visual hallucinations. These symptoms can be severe and debilitating, and can impact every aspect of a person’s life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), schizophrenia is defined by “profound disruptions in thinking, affecting language, perception, and the sense of self.”

An international team of researchers has found that these life-altering symptoms could be caused by defects in glial cells, the cells that support and insulate nerve cells. By using mice with brains colonized by human-donated glial cells, the team’s discovery could greatly impact the future diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia.

Lead researcher Steve Goldman, from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Rochester, stated that “It was through studies of mice with human glial cells that we succeeded in testing how dysfunctional glial cells may cause abnormalities in the formation of the brain’s neural networks, which may in turn cause severe anxiety, anti-social behaviour and severe sleep problems.”

Future Treatments

Living with schizophrenia can present many challenges for patients, and to further complicate matters, the antipsychotic medications used to treat the mental illness often lead host of side effects themselves: ranging from severe restlessness to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.

The side effects of many conventional, readily available treatments are so severe that patients sometimes discontinue or avoid treatment altogether. As is the case with most neurological diseases, there isn’t likely to be one single cause for the disease — nor a single cure-all. But this discovery marks hopeful progress towards better treatment.

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Scientists Have Made a New “Brain-On-A-Chip”

Modelling Connectivity

We have come a long way in our understanding of how the brain works, but the more we know about it, the more we realize we have much to learn. If artificial neural networks are complex, the body’s natural neural network is even more so. However, we are making progress, and a team of researchers from Harvard University may have just provided us with a better way to understand of our brain.

Using an in vitro brain-on-a-chip that they designed to model the brain’s connectivity, the team was able to extensively characterize the differences between neurons from the different regions of the brain. “The brain is so much more than individual neurons,” said Ben Maoz, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and co-first author of the paper, which is published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. “It’s about the different types of cells and the connectivity between different regions of the brain. When modeling the brain, you need to be able to recapitulate that connectivity because there are many different diseases that attack those connections,” he added.

The researchers modeled the three regions of the brain that are primarily affected by schizophrenia, namely the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The team characterized each region in vitro in terms of cell composition, protein expression, metabolism, and neural electrical activity. After that, they analyzed how neurons from each region of the brain changed when in communication with neurons from other regions.

Image of the in vitro model showing three distinct regions of the brain connected by axons. CREDIT: Disease Biophysics Group/Harvard University
Image of the in vitro model showing three distinct regions of the brain connected by axons.
CREDIT: Disease Biophysics Group/Harvard University

A View to the Brain

“It’s no surprise that neurons in distinct regions of the brain are different, but it is surprising just how different they are,” said co-author Stephanie Dauth. “We found that the cell-type ratio, the metabolism, the protein expression, and the electrical activity all differ between regions in vitro. This shows that it does make a difference which brain region’s neurons you’re working with.”

The team noticed that the composition and electrical activity of cells underwent particularly dramatic changes when those cells were in contact with neurons from the brain’s other regions. “When the cells are communicating with other regions, the cellular composition of the culture changes, the electrophysiology changes, all these inherent properties of the neurons change,” Maoz explained. “This shows how important it is to implement different brain regions into in vitro models, especially when studying how neurological diseases impact connected regions of the brain.”

Obviously, this brain-on-a-chip can be a very useful tool for research as it will allow scientists to study neurological and psychological diseases more easily. In fact, the team even demonstrated the effects of a drug that stimulates schizophrenia, Phencyclidine hydrochloride (PCP), on their in vitro model. Through that experiment, they could see how the drug impacted the different brain regions and their connectivity with one another.

This in vitro model could also help lessen the costs of this important research. “Roughly 26 percent of the U.S. healthcare budget is spent on neurological and psychiatric disorders,” said Kit Parker from Harvard SEAS. “Tools to support the development of therapeutics to alleviate the suffering of these patients is not only the human thing to do, it is the best means of reducing this cost.

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