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Schizophrenia Might Not Just Be In The Brain

This painting, by Lynda M. Cutrell, reinterprets a slide of mitochondria ravaged by schizophrenia. (Image courtesy Hope M. Riccardi)

Most people think of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as illnesses of the brain. But researchers at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Belmont say they have discovered possible evidence of these diseases in other parts of the body, too — and that could lead to new ways of diagnosing and treating mental illness.

The mitochondria of a control patient has an evenly spaced structure. (Courtesy Lynda M. Cutrell)

In studies of patients with bipolar disorder, the researchers found abnormalities in their mitochondria, which are sometimes described as “cellular power plants” because they’re a main source of the body’s chemical energy.

The brain needs enormous amounts of energy to function properly, which suggests that these mitochondrial abnormalities could be a potential cause of psychiatric illness.

The researchers were able to see visual differences in the mitochondria of patients in three groups: those with bipolar disorder, those with schizophrenia, and a control group.

The mitochondria in a patient with schizophrenia is clumped together. (Courtesy Lynda M. Cutrell)

So what does this tell us?

Doctors often arrive at a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia only after a patient begins to exhibit symptoms such as as manic-depressive behavior or paranoia.

But if a simple cell test could allow doctors to detect these illnesses before symptoms appear, patients and their families might be spared some of the emotional trauma that can accompany an emerging mental illness.

Guests:

  • Bruce Cohen, M.D., lead researcher and director of the Shevert Frazier Research Institute, McLean Hospital
  • Lynda M. Cutrell, member of the National Board of Directors, National Alliance Mental Illness (NAMI), and a visual artist
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