A new brain imaging study from the Institute of Psychiatry shows for the first time that brain abnormalities and social difficulties in schizophrenia are related. This exciting new study shows that differences in brain function in people with schizophrenia make it difficult for them to gauge what other people are feeling. The findings, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in December, provide crucial information that may help people with schizophrenia to live normal lives.
Led by Dr Tonmoy Sharma, the study combined a new research focus, social cognition,(the ability to recognise and empathise with other people's feelings) with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore why people with schizophrenia have difficulty in interpreting other people's behaviour.
Assessing social dysfunction is a method used to help diagnose schizophrenia. Problems in empathising with others, make it difficult for those with schizophrenia to relate to people, make friends and get jobs. In addition, many believe that this failure to empathise with others correctly may lead to some rare incidences of violence seen in schizophrenia.
The participants of the study were asked to identify the expressions of a series of pairs of eyes, while they did this, images were taken of their brains. The people with schizophrenia were less able to identify the emoitions expressed by the eyes than the people without the illness.
Using fMRI, researchers were able to show that in schizophrenia, social difficulties relate closely to differences in brain activity. Brain imaging revealed reduced activation in the left fronto-temporal network of the brain. Abnormalities in these areas are well documented in schizophrenia but this is the first study when fMRI has linked these brain abnormalities to the social problems seen in schizophrenia.
Dr Sharma feels that social cognition is an area that needs to be addressed. "The ability to recognise emotions is what makes us human, it is an essential attribute lost in schizophrenia. The next challenge is to see whether current treatments can reverse these deficits in social cognition."
Reference: T Russell, K Rubia, E Bullmore, W Soni, J Suckling, M Brammer, A Simmons, S Williams and T Sharma. Exploring the Social Brain in Schizophrenia: Left Prefrontal Underactivation During Mental State Attribution. American Journal of Psychiatry 2000; 157 (11)
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