Mental illness research discovery could help treat schizophrenic symptoms

Jul 15, 2013

Schizophrenia affects nearly 2.4 million Americans. The mental disorder enables patients to feel like they are "hearing voices," and have difficulty with change.

Credit flickr.com

Now, Michigan State University researchers have made a discovery that could help treat some symptoms of Schizophrenia. While current antipsychotic drugs are able to reduce hallucinations, the new study finds information that may eventually help patients cope with other symptoms. These include trouble responding to change, lack of motivation, and the inability to experience pleasure.

"We know mental illness represents a significant challenge," said Alexander Johnson, co-conductor of the study, "Not only in the day-to-day struggle of the affected individuals, but also to society where the direct and indirect costs are spiraling upwards to $3 billion each year."

"Unfortunately," he said, "many of the symptoms such as difficulty with decision making and motivation remain largely untreated by antipsychotics."

Michigan State University neuroscientist Alexander Johnson
Michigan State University neuroscientist Alexander Johnson
Credit Michigan State University

What researchers believe they have found is a trigger in the brain of patients with mental disorders. Using mice, they discovered a dysfunction in the front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, in mice with the mental disorder gene. This area of the brain is responsible for the ability to learn, cognition, and motivation. This does not necessarily mean that the brain is responsible for the actual mental illness, but knowing this could further improve medicine to treat the largest symptoms of the disease.

"So we're viewing mental illness as a disorder of the brain, or 'brain damage' in mice," Johnson explained, "Now that we've identified that, we can start to ask, 'Well, what are the other messages led to that brain dysfunction? Will that help alleviate the symptoms?' That's the initial step to lead to develop novel therapies in patients."

In one experiment, the mice were shown rewarding food on one side of their chamber. Then, the food was switched to the other side. The mice without the disorder gene had no problem switching sides to eat the food. However the mice with the disorder gene had strong difficulty adapting to change. They would still try to find the food on the original side. Johnson calls it reversal learning order deficit.

Credit National Institutes of Health

In the second experiment, Johnson tested motivation. By offering the mice food over and over during a three-hour period, the mice with the illness gene lost the desire to want the food about halfway through the experiment.

These discoveries are examining how the mental illness affects how the person responds to a mental illness. It's hoped new medicine created from the knowledge discovered in this study will appeal to the ability for patients with mental illnesses to adapt to change, stay motivated and learn. This information is also an initial step in providing information for other mental disorders.

-Alana Holland, Michigan Radio Newsroom