Research suggests that relative early alterations in brain development cause some psychiatric conditions that are only diagnosed much later in life, such as schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. It is currently unclear why the clinical outcome of these alterations does not typically manifest until the end of the second decade of life. One possibility is that the changes that normally occur in our brain when we are teenagers expose early alterations in brain circuits. Alternatively, changes in our social context – stress, for example, or drug misuse – may prompt the development of psychotic symptoms.
One symptom of schizophrenia is psychosis, which means that patients are not always able to distinguish their thoughts and perceptions from reality. Cognitive dysfunction is another core feature of schizophrenia. Patients often have attention and memory problems, and when coupled with other symptoms, they struggle to achieve an independent living status. Cognitive problems and other symptoms seem to exist long before the onset of psychosis, which strongly suggests a developmental origin of this disorder.
Schizophrenia is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Research over the past decade has begun to shed light on certain gene changes that make some people more vulnerable to schizophrenia. The genetic risk in schizophrenia is thought to be polygenic, which means that it is associated with multiple gene changes, each individually contributing a very small component of risk but collectively accounting for a significant burden for the disorder. The polygenic nature of risk in certain disorders makes it harder to identify the modifications that those genetic changes introduced in the normal programme of brain development.
Our research aims to understand how brain development is altered in people that develop schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis so that we can identify new treatments to improve their lives.