Research for treatment and a future cure focuses on imbalances of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain’s neural networks. In particular, the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate is believed to play a significant role in schizophrenic episodes. Imbalances damage brain cells, and the longer the disorder goes untreated, the more brain cells are harmed or destroyed.


CAT scans of schizophrenics reveal decreased brain volume in the medial temporal lobe, and increased size in the ventricles, possibly as a result of changes in volume of gray matter. Such scans also reveal the right and left hemispheres to be the same size, as opposed to the right side being slightly larger in unaffected brains. As the brain usually develops its slight asymmetry during fetal development, the more rigid symmetry of the schizophrenic’s brain is believed to have begun forming in the uterus, evidence of a further link to the fetal origins of schizophrenia.

The disease’s appearance in adolescence appears to follow physical and mental triggers that occur during and after puberty. Being a teenager is a very stressful time. The body goes through significant anatomical changes in response to the release of hormones and other biochemicals. Add on the stresses of the developing brain from school, social relationships, self-image, and the battle between emotions and reason, and it’s easy to understand how schizophrenia might be awakened from its sleep.

“The frontal lobe is fighting to adapt to the environment, to deal with all these instinctual urges,” said Daniel Weinberger, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health. “Indeed, it’s difficult enough for people with a normal frontal lobe to make it through adolescence. But we believe that patients with schizophrenia don’t have normal frontal lobes. We believe they didn’t develop normally from early in life.”


Basic research is beginning to fill in the gaps of knowledge between the more commonly studied young and old brains to reveal more about the changes experienced by the brain as it grows.

According to neurologist Frances E. Jensen at Children’s Hospital in Boston, the brain of teens and young adults forms an exciting new frontier. “We kind of needed the two ends of life to sort of anchor us so then we could move in and understand there’s a huge difference from early life to late life and from early life to adult,” she said. “The early adult’s brain development does not finish until sometimes 23, 24, 25, so there’s a whole story there that’s probably yet to be mined.”

Adding significance to such brain research are the rites of adulthood available to those whose brains have not yet fully matured. Americans can legally drink at 21, vote at 18, and marry sometime in their teenage years. Yet many apparently lack the fully developed capacity to completely weigh the potential consequences of their actions.


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