New research to help trials for schizophrenia drugs

CLINICAL trials of drugs once considered dangerous in the treatment of schizophrenia will now more readily be given the go ahead, one of Australia's most prominent psychiatrists says, thanks to significant new research that has shown the brains of schizophrenics may be under immune system attack.

Although researchers have suspected a link between immune function and schizophrenia, a lack of evidence meant it was difficult to get funding to trial immune-system suppressing drugs on schizophrenic patients, said the executive director of Sydney University's Brain and Mind Research Institute, Ian Hickie.

"In order to expose people to dangerous treatments – and immunosuppressive drugs do carry risks – you need serious evidence to suggest those drugs may be useful in treating the condition," Professor Hickie said.

"In the past, researchers have had great difficulty convincing an ethics committee that this is a treatment strategy for schizophrenia."

But a study led by the Schizophrenia Research Institute has shown immune cells in a key brain region affected by the condition – once thought to be inactive – are in fact causing inflammation and damage.

"This, in combination with evidence we already have from existing studies, adds to the argument from researchers that it is now reasonable to trial immunosuppressants on schizophrenia patients," Professor Hickie said.

This meant research into more effective treatment options with the potential to significantly improve schizophrenics' quality of life would now be greatly accelerated, said a senior author of the study, Cyndi Shannon Weickert.

Researchers were now on the threshold of a number of major treatment breakthroughs for schizophrenia within five to 10 years, said Professor Shannon Weickert , of Neuroscience Research Australia.

"The time to start further research and clinical trials is now," she said. "We can use this information to target specific aspects of immune system involved in schizophrenia more directly."

As part of the study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researchers studied the section of the brain involved in regulating emotional and social behaviour, the orbitofrontal cortex, in 40 people, half whom had schizophrenia.

They found about 40per cent of those with schizophrenia had increased inflammation in that area of the brain.

"The part of the brain we looked at is indeed in crisis in people with schizophrenia," Professor Shannon Weickert said. "This raises the possibility that this is a new root cause of the disease."

Schizophrenia affects about 1per cent of the population and can cause hallucinations, memory lapses, movement disorders and depressive symptoms.

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