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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.


  • 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
Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Peggy Moses

    Thank you for such an enlightening show. Not only were difficult mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder explained first hand,but a fresh and promising look at mental illness was portrayed. The mitochondrial images and shapes leave much to be investigated and understood. We need more discovery as we move forward.

  • CT Woman

    This discovery will hopefully dispel society’s stigma against mental illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia. It actually shows there is a physical cause for mental illness.

  • http://yahoo Patti Flanagan

    Hello Dr. Cohen and Lynda Cuttrell, Thank you for this information. I hope and wish there could be more radio talk shows on this subject. I wish the topic’s of bipolar disorder and schiophrenia would be talked about more so more people would understand the illness’. We need to bring much more awareness to the public about proper diagnosis, where and who is capable of giving the right diagnosis, names of psychiatrists that specialize in treating this young age group and where to find good treatment. These are devastating illnesses and families are being crushed and pulled apart by their loved ones and their new and sometimes horrific behaviors. The stigma is still there when it comes to how to treat mental health disorders and I find that primary care physicians, pediatricians, and many medical professionals still are not properly trained and have done a disservice to the community, its patients and the general public due to the lack of knowledge and awareness on mental health topics. Thank You, Patti Flanagan

  • Cheryl Lawson

    That is well and good to say you find links to the mitochondira in these diseases. It is still not helping the families that are NOT getting the proper help for the persons affected by these disorders. When are we going to get the mental health community on board to treat our affected family members?

  • http://www.tayo123.blog.co.uk Omotayo Onabamiro

    Thank you very much for this information. Perhaps the link to mitochondria could somehow explain why certain schizophrenics and bi-polars have bursts of energy, sudden burst of energy.

  • Dan Joyner

    What was the scientist name who pioneered energetics? I got Seymour but I couldnt make out the last name.. Khedi?

  • Florence Van Putten

    I’m amazed at the discovery of possible evidence of Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder
    actually showing up in Mitochondria abnormalities. Its my guess that my late husband, Dr. Theodore Van Putten, a prominent Schizophrenia researcher would have found this very compelling!

  • Paul Semenov

    Numerous articles have already published about mitochondrial abnormalities of mentally ill patients, for example, one by Sabine Bahn group. But psychiatristic society still block all attempts to investigate or cure mental illnesses with other methods not complying with dopamine (or genetics – uncurable) hypothesis. Only very few physicians dare to cure in alternative way and have a success(!).

  • MA Man

    To: Dan Joyner
    The name of the scientist is Seymour Kety.

  • Maria Kingdon

    Two questions: were the bipolar and schizophrenic patients in the test on medications at the time of testing? Had they been on any form of “psych meds” in the past?

  • http://www.zoonation.com Darrell

    Thank you for this remarkable piece of important research..dz

  • Michael

    What role did medication play on these slides? Everybody knows that medication alters brain chemistry. Is this study putting the horse before the cart? Just thinking out loud.

  • Deborah Wood

    I have several friends who have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. One of them was delusional, and had hallucinations. I am happy to report that she got the help she needed, went out on disability, tried a lot of medications until the right combination was found then was able to return to work. I know this is not always true, but I want to tell this success story I know about. Schizophrenia seems to be more debilitating, but new medications come out every year and I have seen some great results for people. I am an administrator for a mental health clinic.

  • CT Woman

    If it is true that your mitochondrial DNA is passed down matrilineally, I would be interested in knowing whether this, since it’s mitochondrial, is inheritable only via your mother’s side of the family?
    Anecdotally,I know of a history where bipolar was evident in grandmother, then son, then granddaughter, which would seem to show it was not mitochondrial, as the granddaughter should have the mitochondrial DNA of her mother, not father.
    Fascinating research!

  • MA Man

    CT Woman,
    While mitochondria are passed down matrilineally, only a small portion of the mitochondrial genes are encoded by the mitochondrial DNA. Most of the mitochondrial machinery is encoded by genomic DNA. While there are some mitochondrial disorders that arise from mutations in the mitochondrial DNA itself, in all likelihood, the genetic differences in this case are more likely to be in the genomic DNA coding for mitochondrial proteins.

  • CT Woman

    Thank you MA Man for clarifying that mitochodrial DNA question. I appreciate it.

  • http://www.darthcontinent.com Darth Continent

    Interesting article!

    I’ve read that there’s a correlation between diabetes and depression, and as a type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetic, I find that often when my mood is out of whack for no apparent reason, my blood glucose lies in either extreme, low or high. This seems to speak to the importance of maintaining consistent energy levels for healthy brain activity.

  • MA Man

    There is a growing body of research that implicates the insuling signaling pathway in the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders and in the mechanism of action of psychiatric medications. You can check out some of these sites which may be helpful:

  • john ferendino

    i am diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia.i believe i inherited it from my mother she comited suicide when i was 15.if the conection is with mitochondria is there is a suppliment for some thing like that?

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