New research shows that schizophrenia is associated with widespread changes in how the brain is wired.

The main focus of the study, which was co-led by NUI Galway and the University of South California, was to identify changes in white matter, often thought as the brain’s wiring system that causes this disability.

While schizophrenia is viewed as a debilitating psychiatric disorder and has been a major focus of neuroimaging studies for decades, its neurobiology remains only partially understood.

Researchers in the ENIGMA consortium came together to analyse data from 4,322 individuals worldwide to identify changes across the brain. The study also examined if disease-related factors (including duration of illness, age, medication, smoking etc) are also associated with differences in white matter microstructure.

The ENIGMA network

The results from the study showed that the so-called ‘white matter’ fibres, which connect different brain regions, are slightly altered, or frayed, making communication between different brain regions less than ideal. While these differences were larger in some areas of the brain than others, an important finding was that these changes were seen right across the brain and not just in one area. In schizophrenia, these changes are likely to help explain several clinical symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, but also the cognitive difficulties that people experience and that strongly predict a level of disability.

Professor Gary Donohoe at the School of Psychology at NUI Galway said "what we have achieved here is to provide definitive proof that these changes are not specific to any one area of the brain, but rather reflect subtle yet widespread changes throughout the brain. In terms of the idea that schizophrenia might be caused by a mis-wiring of the brain, this study provides unequivocal evidence that this is the case. The next steps will be to identify the individual genetics variants that lead to this mis-wiring.

"Schizophrenia can be enormously disabling and is frequently misunderstood. This study is pointing us in a particular direction to treat schizophrenia as a disorder affecting the whole brain rather than one part of it."

Further details of the research are available here.