Schizophrenia is a serious mental health condition that can lead to a wide range of troubling symptoms in both pediatric and adult patients. These symptoms may range from hallucinations and delusions to poor executive functioning. Even though pharmacological treatments have emerged in recent years, these pharmacological solutions are incomplete. Also, these medications may have serious side effects, such as weight gain and lethargy, and patients may be reluctant to comply with the drug regimen. However, to find other more permanent solutions, it may be essential to develop a better understanding of what causes schizophrenia. There is ongoing uncertainty about the causes. Some researchers point to genetic factors, whereas others suggest that it may be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Research is ongoing on schizophrenia. However, one promising area has emerged in recent years, and that is looking at the impact that stem cell therapy may have on schizophrenia.
Stem Cell Therapy & Schizophrenia
Stem cell therapy has taken many different forms in recent years. For example, a team at the Salk Institute has used stem cells to produce a wide variety of nerve cells; these nerve cells are then used to more effectively model what is happening in the brain. The researchers believe that schizophrenia is the result of brain cells failing to communicate with each other. This stands in contrast to the traditional model of schizophrenia that has suggested that it is due to abnormal levels of dopamine in the affected patient’s brain.
Neurons Created From Stem Cells
The key to the Salk Institute’s team was creating a wide range of neurons and these neurons were created from stem cells. And, once these cells were created, the laboratory then modeled them to see how and why the neurons interacted. They also looked for situations in which these cells do not interact or in which the interactions may be flawed or abnormal. The scientists determined that in patients with schizophrenia, the interactions between the neurons tended to be abnormal. But, interestingly, the scientists also noted that schizophrenia was not the only mental health condition that seemed to display this abnormal communication. Rusty Gage, the lead scientist on the project, explained that, “In a lot of psychiatric diseases, there’s evidence of dysfunction in the connection between cells.”
Focusing on the Hippocampus
Although the Salk Institute team was able to create a wide variety of neurons from stem cells, they primarily focused on neurons that are found in the brain’s hippocampus. The reason for this is that many drugs that have been effective in reducing schizophrenia symptoms have largely focused on the hippocampus, suggesting that the hippocampus may be the source of schizophrenia. It is important to note that even though this research represented a breakthrough, it is still in early stages. The sample size of the Salk Institute study was extremely small, only seven people were part of the study. Thus, extrapolating could potentially raise concerns about data distortion and other challenges.
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Although the Salk Institute study has generated more headlines than many other innovations, it is not the only breakthrough in the sphere of determining how stem cells may interact with the schizophrenia disease process. As noted above, the Salk researchers looked to determine what caused schizophrenia, assuming that this could give additional insight into how to effectively treat the disease. But, other research has focused almost exclusively on treatments that can have a positive effect on patients with schizophrenia.
The Use of Interneurons
For example, in 2013, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio published results in which they explained that stem cell transplants had proven to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia in preliminary animal tests. These researchers claimed that schizophrenia was caused by a breakdown in the effectiveness of interneurons. What is an interneuron? Simply put, interneurons are a special form of an axon; these cells limit brain activity. But, in patients with schizophrenia, this limiting act simply does not seem to happen. Without this braking mechanism, the body of the affected patient will produce too much dopamine. And, this dopamine will have serious negative effects on patients, including leading to a surge in schizophrenia symptoms.
Once the doctors and researchers identified these risk factors and areas of concern, they turned their attention to seeing how these negatives could be addressed. The University of Texas team made the decision to transplant stem cells directly into the patient’s hippocampus. More specifically, the scientists had the stem cells grow and develop into the specialized interneurons. These cells were then injected directly into the hippocampus. And, the results were outstanding. Following stem cell transplantation, the hippocampus demonstrated normal levels of functioning; and perhaps more importantly, dopamine levels returned to normal.
Is A Cure Near?
Perhaps the most exciting results from this transplantation study was that it seemed to be a cure to schizophrenia. All of the other products that are available, primarily pharmacological interventions, offer at best temporary resolution or a decline in troubling schizophrenia symptoms that a patient may experience. Also, at least in early stage testing, there do not seem to be many side effects that are associated with stem cell transplantation. This stands in extremely sharp contrast to the many side effects associated with many of these pharmacological drugs. Often patients describe these side effects as debilitating; and faced with either these side effects, on the one hand, and a reduction in their schizophrenia symptoms, many people have decided to simply stop medical treatment. And this medication stoppage has impacts on both the patient and the population as well.
In addition to the two highlighted studies that were described above, there are other studies that are currently ongoing — and one would expect even more research to be carried out in the foreseeable future.
Schizophrenia is a severe mental health disorder that affects approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population. Schizophrenia can cause a wide range of troubling symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, that can have a significant impact on affected patients’ quality of life and well-being. Traditionally, schizophrenia has been treated with various prescribed medications. However, these drugs have a wide range of side effects that many patients are unwilling to deal with. And, thus, drug compliance is often low in these situations. Recognizing that patients, family members, and providers were looking for new opportunities and potential solutions, in recent years, many researchers have begun to conduct more research on how stem cells can impact schizophrenia and its symptoms. Multiple studies are currently being conducted, but two from this sphere have been described in significant detail in recent years. In the first study, the Salk Institute looked to prove that schizophrenia occurs because different neurons in the brain fail to communicate with one another.
In addition to looking to identify troubling symptoms that may impact many people, other research has also been removed. For example, a team from the University of Texas Health Science Center found that by implanting stem cells directly into the patient’s hippocampus (an area of the brain) schizophrenia has the potential to be permanently cured. Again, more research needs to be done on this topic. However, initial results have been promising and have shown that risk factors for both recipients and donors are extremely low.
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