The kynurenine pathway describes the steps that turn the amino acid tryptophan (the ingredient in turkey that might make you sleepy) into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. This pathway might be a connection between the immune system and neurotransmitters involved in schizophrenia.
A recent autopsy study by researcher Thomas Weickert and colleagues explored this link by determining that in the brains of people with schizophrenia and high levels of inflammation, messenger RNA for Kynurenine Aminotransferase II (KATII, a step on the kynurenine pathway) was elevated in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex compared to the brains of people who died healthy and those with schizophrenia but low levels of inflammation.
The KATII mRNA levels also correlated with mRNA levels of inflammatory markers such as glial fibrillary acidic protein and interleukin-6.
Blood measures related to the kynurenine pathway also differentiated people with schizophrenia from healthy controls. People with schizophrenia had lower levels of tryptophan, kynurenine, and kynurenic acid in their blood. The low levels of kynurenic acid in the blood were correlated with deficits in working memory and smaller volume of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Weickert and colleagues suggest that blood levels of kynurenic acid might provide a measurable indicator of the degree to which people with schizophrenia are experiencing problems with executive functioning (planning and decision-making) and loss of brain volume.
Maltreatment during childhood has been linked to brain changes and mental illness. In a study by researcher Carl M. Anderson and colleagues that was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, maltreatment at particular ages was statistically linked to deficits in the size of certain brain areas in young adulthood.
The brain areas under examination are critical for the regulation of emotion and behavior, and this research suggests that early experiences can stunt their development, perhaps through altered production of synapses or via the synaptic pruning process that occurs during preadolescence. The details, summarized below, are perhaps less important than the overall finding that maltreatment in childhood affects brain volume, and this effect varies based on the timing and type of maltreatment. Abuse and neglect earlier in life affected the left side of the brain, while later maltreatment affected the right side.
Severity of physical abuse at age 3 affected the volume of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in women. Physical abuse at ages 3 and 8 in men affected left ventromedial prefrontal cortical volume, while later abuse at ages 7 and 12 predicted volume of the right side.
In women, dorsal anterior cingulate area on the left was predicted by physical abuse at age 5 and by emotional neglect at ages 7 and 11. Later emotional neglect at ages 15 and 16 and physical abuse by a peer at age 10 was associated with smaller right dorsal anterior cingulate. In men, smaller left dorsal anterior cingulate area was predicted by physical neglect at age 2 and emotional abuse by a peer and witnessing abuse of a sibling at ages 5 and 10, and right area by physical neglect at age 12.
Recent studies have indicated that bipolar disorder is associated with changes to brain volume, including thinning of the cortex. In research presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Noha Abdel Gawad reported that four weeks of lithium treatment increased cortical thickness in the left superior frontal gyrus. This is the third replication of this finding.
Other research has established that lithium treatment also increases the volume of the hippocampus in people with bipolar disorder. Together the findings provide strong evidence that lithium treatment protects neurons and can reverse brain changes associated with bipolar disorder.
Smoking, alcohol use, obesity, and diabetes aren’t just harmful to the body. They may actually lead to dementia.
Behavioral risk factors for cardiovascular disease like those listed above have been linked to reduced volume in the brain as a whole and several brain regions, including the hippocampus, precuneous, and posterior cingulate cortex. A 2015 study by researcher Kevin King and colleagues found that these reduced brain volumes are early indicators of cognitive decline.
King and colleagues analyzed data on 1,629 participants in the long-term Dallas Heart Study. Their cardiovascular risk factors were assessed when they began the study, and their brain volume and cognitive function were measured seven years later.
Alcohol use and diabetes were associated with lower total brain volumes, while smoking and obesity were linked to low volumes in the posterior cingulate cortex.
Low hippocampal volume was linked to past alcohol use and smoking, while lower precuneous volume was linked to alcohol use, obesity, and blood glucose levels.King and colleagues suggested that subtle differences in brain volumes in midlife are the first sign of developing dementia in participants who were still younger than 50 years of age.
Psychiatrists should take the lead in endorsing general wellness and encouraging healthy behaviors, says researcher James Hudziak. He suggests that opportunities to practice music, mindfulness, and exercise should be made available to all school children to increase brain health, and that more intensive efforts are necessary for children in families that are at risk for mood and behavioral difficulties or in children who show some dysfunction in these areas. Hudziak has implemented a statewide program in Vermont that encourages families to engage in these healthy practices.
Hudziak and colleagues analyzed brain scans of 232 children ages 6 to 18, looking for relationships between cortical thickness and musical training. They found that practicing an instrument such as the piano or violin increased working memory, gray matter volume in the brain, and the ability to screen out irrelevant noise. Practicing mindfulness increased white matter volume and reduced anxiety and depression. Exercise also increased brain volume and neuropsychological abilities.
Now Hudziak urges parents to advocate for the teaching of music, mindfulness, and exercise in schools as a way of improving general health, especially since music and gym are often the first programs to be cut when schools face budget shortages. Hudziak suggests that opportunities for athletics should be provided to all children, independent of their skill level, rather than only for the best athletes who “make the team.” Intramural teams should be open to all children, including those with less ability or minimal athletic skills. Exercise, teamwork, and friendships benefit all children.
For more information about the programs Hudziak implemented in Vermont, use the internet to search for the Vermont Family Based Approach, see his book Developmental Psychopathology and Wellness: Genetic and Environmental Influences, or call the University of Vermont Medical Center at (802)847-0000 or (800)358-1144.
Another tool that may be useful to parents of children aged 2 to 12 who are at risk for mood disorders is our Child Network, a secure online portal where parents can complete quick weekly ratings of their child’s mood and behavior, which is then graphed over time and can be used to show the child’s doctors how his or her symptoms are fluctuating and how well any treatment is working.
By the time psychosis appears in someone with schizophrenia, biological changes associated with the illness may have already been present for years. A 2015 article by R.S. Kahn and I.E. Sommer in the journal Molecular Psychiatry describes some of these abnormalities and how treatments might better target them.
One such change is in brain volume. At the time of diagnosis, schizophrenia patients have a lower intracranial volume on average than healthy people. Brain growth stops around age 13, suggesting that reduced brain growth in people with schizophrenia occurs before that age.
At diagnosis, patients with schizophrenia show decrements in both white and grey matter in the brain. Grey matter volume tends to decrease further in these patients over time, while white matter volume remains stable or can even increase.
Overproduction of dopamine in the striatum is another abnormality seen in the brains of schizophrenia patients at the time of diagnosis.
Possibly years before the dopamine abnormalities are observed, underfunctioning of the NMDA receptor and low-grade brain inflammation occur. These may be linked to cognitive impairment and negative symptoms of schizophrenia such as social withdrawal or apathy, suggesting that there is an at-risk period before psychosis appears when these symptoms can be identified and addressed. Psychosocial treatments such as individual, group, or family psychotherapy and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation have both been shown to decrease the rate of conversion from early symptoms to full-blown psychosis.
Using antipsychotic drugs to treat the dopamine abnormalities is generally successful in patients in their first episode of schizophrenia. Use of atypical antipsychotics is associated with less brain volume loss than use of the older typical antipsychotics. Treatments to correct the NMDA receptor abnormalities and brain inflammation, however, are only modestly effective. (Though there are data to support the effectiveness of the antioxidant n-acetylcysteine (NAC) on negative symptoms compared to placebo.) Kahn and Sommer suggest that applying treatments when cognitive and social function begin to be impaired (rather than waiting until psychosis appears) could make them more effective.
The authors also suggest that more postmortem brain analyses, neuroimaging studies, animal studies, and studies of treatments’ effects on brain abnormalities are all needed to clarify the causes of the early brain changes that occur in schizophrenia and identify ways of treating and preventing them.
In a talk at the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorder, researcher David Bond reported that 75% of patients in a study of first episode mania had unhealthy body mass indices (BMIs). Forty percent were overweight while thirty-five percent were obese. Higher weight was associated with greater illness severity. Bond said that in other studies obesity has been associated with less time well and a greater risk of relapse into depression.
Obese patients also had lower brain volume, worse memory, and a greater risk of developing early onset dementia compared to other patients. Those who were overweight or obese had a 35% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
In a different talk at the same meeting, researcher Roger McIntyre reported that among patients with bipolar disorder, those who were obese have greater cognitive problems and more evidence of inflammation than those who were not obese. He has seen indirect antidepressant effects and other health benefits following weight loss from bariatric surgery.
Repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is a treatment for depression in which magnets placed near the skull stimulate electrical impulses in the brain. In a poster presented at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Martin Lan and colleagues presented results of the first study of structural changes in the brain following rTMS.
In the study, 27 patients in an episode of major depression underwent magnetic resonance brain scans before and after receiving rTMS treatment over their left prefrontal cortices. Lan and colleagues reported that several cortical regions related to cognitive appraisal, the subjective experience of emotion, and self-referential processing increased in volume following rTMS treatment: the anterior cingulate, the cingulate body, the precuneous, right insula, and gray matter in the medial frontal gyrus. The increases ranged from 5.3% to 15.7%, and no regions decreased in volume. More than 92% of the participants showed increased gray matter in all of these regions.
The brain changes were not correlated with antidepressant response to rTMS, but suggest a possible mechanism by which rTMS is effective in some people. Lan and colleagues concluded that rTMS likely had neuroplastic effects in areas of the brain that are important for emotion regulation.
Progressive losses in gray matter have been observed in the cortex of people with schizophrenia, and those at high risk for the illness. In the past, studies have shown that the amount of antipsychotics a patient is exposed to is correlated with the extent of their deficits in gray matter, suggesting that antipsychotic treatment could exacerbate gray matter loss.
A new meta-analysis by Antotonio Vita and colleagues in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that first-generation antipsychotics were associated with greater losses in gray matter compared with atypical antipsychotics, which seemed to slow the loss of gray matter.
The meta-analysis analyzed data from 18 longitudinal studies comparing a total of 1155 patients with schizophrenia to 911 healthy control participants. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed that over time, patients with schizophrenia lost more cortical gray matter volume. The patients’ cumulative intake of any kind of antipsychotic between MRI scans was associated with gray matter losses. But when Vita and colleagues drilled down to find differences between patients taking first-generation antipsychotics and those taking second-generation atypical antipsychotics, they found that patients with higher average daily intake of first-generation antipsychotics had greater losses in gray matter, while patients with higher average daily intake of atypical antipsychotics had less progressive losses in gray matter.
This study is the first to compare the effects of first-generation antipsychotics, which were developed in the 1960s, with those of atypical antipsychotics, which came into frequent use in the late 1980s, on cortical gray matter loss in schizophrenia. While first-generation antipsychotics are associated with the side effect of tardive dyskinesia, involuntary movements of the face and jaw, atypical antipsychotics are most commonly associated with weight gain.
Three studies have randomly assigned patients with schizophrenia to receive either first-generation or atypical antipsychotics. In these studies as well, second-generation antipsychotics were associated with smaller losses in gray matter.
The authors speculate that either second-generation antipsychotics may have neuroprotective effects, or first-generation antipsychotics may have neurotoxic effects. They also suggest that first-generation antipsychotics may not have the capacity to interfere with the natural progression of schizophrenia in terms of gray matter losses.
Future studies may investigate differences between specific antipsychotic medications’ effects on gray matter volume. Vita and colleagues reported that in the analysis, the atypical antipsychotic clozapine was associated with the least loss of gray matter of any medication in the included studies.
Editor’s Note: This study is important because it adds to findings questioning the conclusions of a large National Institute of Mental Health–sponsored study known as CATIE and a meta-analysis by John Geddes published in the journal BMJ in 2000, in which he wrote that “There is no clear evidence that atypical antipsychotics are more effective or better tolerated than conventional (first generation) antipsychotics.” Read more
According to researcher David J. Bond at the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, “Up to 75% of people with bipolar disorder (BD) are overweight or obese, and these patients suffer more severe psychiatric symptoms than normal-weight patients, including more frequent depressions, more suicide attempts, lower response rates to pharmacotherapy, and greater inter-episode cognitive impairment.” Obesity is a chronic inflammatory condition that damages body organs, and it appears as though the brain may be one of these. Adipose (fatty) tissue is an endocrine organ that produces substances that cause inflammation in blood vessels and that damage the heart.
Obesity is associated with decreased total brain volume, and in children, decreased gray matter volume. Obesity increases the risk of cognitive impairment, and decreases memory, attention, and executive functioning. Obesity increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and depression.
In bipolar disorder, obesity decreases response to mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotics. Bond found that in patients with a first episode of mania, body mass index (BMI) was inversely related to white matter volume and temporal lobe gray matter volume. Higher BMIs also led to neurochemical changes including increased hippocampal glutamate and reduced N-acetylaspartate. Bond also noted findings by Roger S. McIntyre that weight loss surgery in patients with bipolar disorder led to more positive treatment outcomes.
Editor’s Note: These findings speak to the importance of exercise and good diet, using medications with the least likelihood of weight gain, and treating obesity once it has developed. We have previously noted the weight loss effects of topiramate and zonisamide, and new data support the substantial weight loss with the combination of bupropion (150-300mg) and naltrexone (50mg).