Breakthrough in Schizophrenia Identifies Importance of Immune Cells


Source: University of New South Wales

Summary: Researchers have identified immune cells in greater amounts in the brains of some people with schizophrenia. This new research could open doors to new treatments, research and therapies.


One in every 100 Australians lives with schizophrenia. No single cause of schizophrenia has been identified, and this has prevented the development of a cure. The current treatments for schizophrenia are designed to suppress symptoms rather than target underlying causes of the disorder. These drugs only partially relieve symptoms and can produce unwanted side effects. Most scientists have had a long-held belief that immune cells were independent from the brain pathology in psychotic illnesses. In one of the biggest breakthroughs in schizophrenia research in recent times, researchers from UNSW and NeuRA have identified immune cells in greater amounts in the brains of some people with schizophrenia. This new research could open doors to new treatments, research and therapies. The study findings were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

mental disorder

NeuRA and UNSW Professor Cynthia Shannon Weickert and NeuRA PhD student Helen Cai. Credit: NeuRA

Current schizophrenia research has focused on the status of three brain cells: the neurons; the glial cells, which support the neurons; and the endothelial cells, which coat the blood vessels. Employing new molecular techniques allowed the team to identify the presence of a fourth cell, the macrophage, a type of immune cell in the brain tissue of people with schizophrenia who show high levels of inflammation. Immune cells have previously been ignored as they had long been viewed simply as travelers just thought to be passing by, undertaking surveillance work. They have never been a suspect until now. This discovery shows that specific immune cells are in the brains of some people with schizophrenia in close enough proximity to the neurons to do damage. This innovative new research has the ability to possibly alter the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia.

Prof. Shannon Weickert said, “This opens whole new avenues for therapy because it suggests that the pathology of schizophrenia could be within the immune cells and the immune cells could be contributing to the symptoms of schizophrenia.”


More Information:  Helen Q. Cai et al, “Increased macrophages and changed brain endothelial cell gene expression in the frontal cortex of people with schizophrenia displaying inflammation”, Molecular Psychiatry (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41380-018-0235-x 


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