Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder, characterized by discrepancies in perception, thoughts, and emotional receptiveness. It is a complex disorder that can affect an individual’s health to a considerable extent. Understanding the gravity of the disorder, researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) have identified a pattern of brain activity that can be the sign of memory problems in people suffering from schizophrenia.
This biomarker, which the researchers believe may be the first of its kind, can be an important key to understanding and treating the cognitive symptoms of the disorder. The study, titled “Mechanisms of Working Memory Impairment in Schizophrenia,” was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2016.
Schizophrenia causes hallucinations and delusions; however, cognitive impairments, including short-term or long-term memory loss, are some of the symptoms of the disease. First author Jared X. Van Snellenberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical psychology (in psychiatry) at CUMC and research scientist in the division of translational imaging at NYSPI, said, “Of all the symptoms linked to schizophrenia, memory issues may have the greatest impact on quality of life, as they can make it difficult to hold down a job and maintain social relationships.” He added that the cause of such memory problems is still a mystery to science and there is no way to treat them.
Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’s role in working memory
One of the hypotheses made by the researchers is that disruptions in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) can be a possible cause for memory impairment. The DLPFC plays a significant role in working memory – the system that temporarily stores and manages information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks. However, previous studies, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), could not show clear differences between DLPFC activation in healthy individuals and in those with schizophrenia while they participated in memory tests.
As a result, the researchers of this study wanted to determine if the patients with schizophrenia showed any alteration in the working memory load and its activation as it has been seen in healthy individuals and that whether it was responsible for causing working memory deficits in schizophrenia patients.
Dr. Snellenberg hypothesized that previous studies were not able to establish any significant differences because their memory tests did not possess enough levels of difficulty. In 2014, he and his team designed specific computerized memory tests, which contained eight levels of extreme difficulties in a single working memory task.
The researchers started the trial among 45 healthy controls and 51 schizophrenia patients, of which 21 were not under any antipsychotic medications. All the participants were required to take the eight-level memory test while undergoing fMRI imaging. It was noticed that the healthy controls showed a gradual increase in DLPFC activation, followed by a gradual decrease in activation as the task got harder. However, schizophrenia patients, both medicated and non-medicated ones, showed significantly weaker responses.
The researchers said that this may be the first time that a signal in DLPFC has been directly linked to working memory performance in patients suffering from schizophrenia. Dr. Snellenberg said, “Our findings provide evidence that the DLPFC is compromised in patients with schizophrenia.” He also said that they are unable to find the reason for this compromise. But, they are positive that future research in this arena will help them come to some decisive conclusion about this difference.
Way to recovery
Science is on a path to discover ways in curing mental health disorders, and each finding can bring new opportunities in treating disorders like schizophrenia.
However, if your loved one is suffering from schizophrenia or any other mental disorder, seek medical attention immediately. The earlier the symptoms are diagnosed, the more fruitful the treatment becomes. The Florida Mental Health Helpline can help you find the right treatment for mental disorders in Florida. Call at our 24/7 helpline number 866-846-5588 or chat online with our representatives for more information.