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Mol Psychiatry. 2015 Feb;20(1):84-97. doi: 10.1038/mp.2014.66. Epub 2014 Jul 22.

The neurobiology and treatment of first-episode schizophrenia.

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Department of Psychiatry, Brain Center Rudolf Magnus, University Medical Centre Utrecht, Utrecht, The Netherlands.


It is evident that once psychosis is present in patients with schizophrenia, the underlying biological process of the illness has already been ongoing for many years. At the time of diagnosis, patients with schizophrenia show decreased mean intracranial volume (ICV) as compared with healthy subjects. Since ICV is driven by brain growth, which reaches its maximum size at approximately 13 years of age, this finding suggests that brain development in patients with schizophrenia is stunted before that age. The smaller brain volume is expressed as decrements in both grey and white matter. After diagnosis, it is mainly the grey matter loss that progresses over time whereas white matter deficits are stable or may even improve over the course of the illness. To understand the possible causes of the brain changes in the first phase of schizophrenia, evidence from treatment studies, postmortem and neuroimaging investigations together with animal experiments needs to be incorporated. These data suggest that the pathophysiology of schizophrenia is multifactorial. Increased striatal dopamine synthesis is already evident before the time of diagnosis, starting during the at-risk mental state, and increases during the onset of frank psychosis. Cognitive impairment and negative symptoms may, in turn, result from other abnormalities, such as NMDA receptor hypofunction and low-grade inflammation of the brain. The latter two dysfunctions probably antedate increased dopamine synthesis by many years, reflecting the much earlier presence of cognitive and social dysfunction. Although correction of the hyperdopaminergic state with antipsychotic agents is generally effective in patients with a first-episode psychosis, the effects of treatments to correct NMDA receptor hypofunction or low-grade inflammation are (so far) rather modest at best. Improved efficacy of these interventions can be expected when they are applied at the onset of cognitive and social dysfunction, rather than at the onset of psychosis.

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