Like modern-day Magellans mapping the landscape of madness, scientists reported Wednesday the first successful imaging of the hallucinating brains of schizophrenic patients.
The feat, a technical tour de force, may have identified the misfiring circuitry in brains tormented by voices and visions, the hallmark of the disorder.
If confirmed by replication, the discovery could open the door to better diagnosis and treatment of the devastating psychosis that afflicts as many as 2 million Americans.
By showing how the brain can create its own reality, the research also helps to break down the distinction between mind and brain and may advance understanding of mechanisms that underlie consciousness and perception.
“This is the first time there has been a specific image in the brain associated with schizophrenia,” said neurologist-psychiatrist Dr. David Silbersweig, the lead author of the study, reported Thursday in the journal Nature.
But Silbersweig was quick to caution, “No one knows the cause of the disease or how to cure it.”
He said his work “adds to the theory that says schizophrenia is not just a disorder of one part of the brain, but many parts. It’s our hope, though, that by localizing the brain areas that give rise to symptoms, we can home in and design new diagnostic and treatment strategies.”
Silbersweig and his research partner, radiologist Dr. Emily Stern, direct the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.
Their specialty, PET (positron emission tomography) scanning, is a computerized imaging technique in which simple sugars and other substances needed by the brain for energy are tagged with radioactive tracers and given to patients.
As the brain thinks, breaking down the sugars, the radioactive tags become visible, allowing scientists to spot increases in the flow of cerebral blood to activated regions.
Schizophrenia is characterized by disruptions in thought, perception, feeling and behavior that gradually become apparent, usually in late adolescence, although paranoid schizophrenia often starts later.
The thought disorder responsible for millions of tortured souls, ruined families and shattered lives comes in many forms and is difficult to define, let alone diagnose. There is no sure-fire test to identify the disease.
The illness is not necessarily chronic. About one patient in three eventually recovers, and most others generally show some improvement. But even with anti-psychotic drug therapy, schizophrenics still occupy as much as a quarter of all hospital beds.