New Research Shines Light on Schizophrenia

March 8, 2005

New Research Shines Light on Schizophrenia

Neuroscientists from the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI) and the University of British Columbia have discovered biological links between schizophrenia and memory disturbances.

Most people associate schizophrenia with the symptoms of psychosis - hearing voices, or developing false beliefs (paranoia). While these types of symptoms are the most known manifestations of the illness, other features are more disabling. Once schizophrenia has developed, all too often people with the illness cannot work, and become socially isolated. Researchers now know that the strongest predictor for social and occupational impairment in schizophrenia is not the psychotic symptoms of the illness, but instead is the cognitive impairment associated with schizophrenia. Poor cognitive function predicts poor recovery of the ability to work and to have meaningful social relationships.

New research in British Columbia is lighting up our understanding of cognitive problems in schizophrenia. Dr. Bill Honer, director of the Complex Disorders Research Unit at VCHRI and Jack Bell Chair in Schizophrenia Research at UBC is leading a research effort to connect the impairments in schizophrenia to mechanisms of brain function. He is the author of a new study, published in the March issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, which reveals there is a biological change in the brain of people who have had schizophrenia that leads to cognitive impairment.

"We examined both animal models and studies of human brain tissue obtained after death. The animal studies show that learning and memory in animals is associated with increases in the specific brain proteins called complexins. The human studies show these same proteins were decreased in the brains of patients who had schizophrenia, and especially so in the patients who also had significant memory problems," Honer says. "This tells us schizophrenia likely causes biological changes in the brains of some patients, and that these changes then lead to cognitive impairment."

Dr. Todd Woodward, a Provincial Health Services Authority researcher at Riverview Hospital is also part of the Complex Disorders Research Unit. He has recently been awarded a 3-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study memory problems in schizophrenia, particularly in relation to the psychotic symptoms of the illness. He will use novel tests of memory and thinking at the same time as imaging the brain with functional magnetic resonance scans to determine how memory and psychotic symptoms interact.

"These studies will establish a new molecular target for developing drug treatments for memory and other cognitive problems in schizophrenia," says Honer "If we can successfully treat the cognitive problems associated with schizophrenia, there is a much better chance of a successful recovery from this illness."

The Complex Disorders Research Unit at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute is supported by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

VCHRI is the research body of Vancouver Coastal Health. The Institute works in academic partnership with the University of British Columbia to foster research leading to better health outcomes and healthier lives for the people of British Columbia, Canada, and beyond.

Riverview Hospital is part of BC Mental Health Services, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. Its mission is to provide highly specialized care to adults with persistent or severe mental illness, and to improve mental health care throughout the province through clinical service, education, and research partnerships.

For Interviews with Drs. Bill Honer and Todd Woodward (Note: Visuals and patient are available) contact: Lisa Carver
Communications Specialist,
Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute
604 875-4111 x 61777 or cell 604 319-7533

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