The body of scientific knowledge on schizophrenia continues to grow with the recent discovery of the immune system’s possible involvement, writes Madeleine Clarke.

Schizophrenia may be linked to higher immune activity within the brain, according to a new study by Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). Photo:

The findings provide the strongest link between the disease and the immune system to date, paving the way for new treatments.

Stuart Fillman, NeuRA researcher, said there may now be scope for developing treatments to lessen the negative side-effects of anti-psychotics.

“What we’d like to do is to find treatments that we can add on to these antipsychotics that help deal with the negative symptomatology and improve lives. So this gives us another area that we can target,” he said.

The study revealed immune activity in 40 per cent of sampled brain tissue. This was indicated by increased levels of pro-inflammatory Cytokine proteins, which are involved in immune responses.

The research extends the work of previous studies identifying autoimmune activity in the blood of affected patients through an increased activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The increased activity has been identified as a possible cause or effect of the disease.

“People used to think that whatever happened in the body, if you had antibodies or things like that from the immune system, it would never get into the brain,” said Mr Fillman, “but we know now that that’s not necessarily the case, especially in cases of injury or things like inflammation that barrier becomes a little bit more porous.”

“In schizophrenia, it could be that these cytokines are being produced in the brain and are circulating around the periphery. Or that there’s some kind of interaction between the two of them,” he said.

Past schizophrenia sufferer now working with Mental Health Carers ARAFMI, Sammy*, said that biological knowledge of the illness is lacking.  In his experience, treatment is based on observation of external behavior.

“You’ll give 10 people the same medication and they’ll all react differently to it. Obviously they have one condition but they way they react to this medication that affects the mind will be completely different. So the individual treatment isn’t there,” he said.

Sammy said that ongoing research is most important in its role of offering hope to sufferers. He advocates that mental stimulation, such as study and maintenance of relationships, is a vital aspect of recovery.

“One of the things about people who do have a long-term mental condition, you do tend to find that they live a very simple existence. They’re constantly going from episode to episode, in and out of hospital,” he said.

“But if you do give them hope . . . that hope obviously offers a few more benefits such as mental stimulation, and that can make a big difference to a carer as well as the person suffering the illness.”

Anthony Harris, associate professor in psychiatry at the University of Sydney, said that neuroscience is only just beginning to understand the brain. He stressed the importance of seeking treatment and overcoming the stigma of pathological disease.

“We now know that there is a very wide range of outcomes for people with schizophrenia and also that with appropriate treatment, encouragement, management and engagement, the vast majority of people with schizophrenia can lead enjoyable and fruitful lives,” he said.

This new research is significant in developing a greater biological understanding of the complex and case-by-case nature of schizophrenia.

If you need immediate assistance or support, please contact Life Line on 13 11 14. For further information about schizophrenia, contact SANE Australia or talk to a medical professional.

*Name changed for source privacy