Will Anti-Inflammatory Medicines Be The Future Treatment For Schizophrenia?

What if, instead of anti-psychotic medication, people suffering from schizophrenia were given anti-inflammatory medications, like Motrin? That might seem like a dangerous and irresponsible treatment plan, but according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, anti-inflammatory medications might be just what the doctor ordered. New research found that immune cells are more active in the brains of people at risk of schizophrenia and in those already diagnosed with this disease that affects slightly more than one percent of the general population.

Thus far, treatment for schizophrenia has focused mostly on an imbalance in the chemical reactions within the brain. Medications have been targeting the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate, according to Medical News Today. When patients with schizophrenia experience side effects from these medications, they often stop taking them and they relapse.

Researchers at the Medical Research Council's (MRC) Clinical Sciences Centre, at Imperial College London, and at King's College London used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to detect and measure the levels of activity of immune cells inside of the brain in order to determine if these immune cells, known as microglia, are related to schizophrenia and how. The researchers determined that people diagnosed with schizophrenia had high levels of activity of these immune cells and that this immune response might be triggering symptoms of schizophrenia.

"Our findings are particularly exciting because it was previously unknown whether these cells become active before or after onset of the disease," Peter Bloomfield, lead author of the study at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, explained. "Now we have shown this early involvement, mechanisms of the disease and new medications can hopefully be uncovered."

Dr. Oliver Howes, head of the psychiatric imaging group at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, believes that the research suggests that inflammation might actually cause schizophrenic symptoms and other psychotic disorders. He also believes that in light of these new findings, an entirely new way to treat them may be on the horizon. The team intends to test whether anti-inflammatory drugs can treat or even prevent schizophrenia.

Prof. Hugh Perry, chair of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Board at the MRC, says that inflammation possibly causing symptoms of schizophrenia brings a possibility for life-changing treatments for schizophrenia and other diseases like depression and Alzheimer's disease.

Although the actual causes of schizophrenia remains unknown, inflammatory processes were already linked to schizophrenia in some way, because patients with schizophrenia show elevated levels of pro-inflammatory proteins and high numbers of activated microglial cells, the Guardian reported.

"My hunch is that this is what's going on, and that microglial activation is part of the disease pathology, as opposed to a protective response," Howes stated. "We know that people with schizophrenia have loss of synapses, and that microglia play a role in synaptic pruning. If pruning goes to excess, or goes wrong, it could lead to major problems in brain function, and that may be what we're seeing here."

"We think microglia may be activated in response to infection or head trauma, but then start pruning too much, leading to the onset of the illness," Howes stated additionally, "and now we're planning a clinical study that reduces microglial activation to see if that reduces symptoms. Beyond that, we'd like to take it to a full-scale clinical trial and look at potentially preventing onset altogether."

Schizophrenia costs the U.S. at least $60 billion a year, according to a Huffington Post report, which also stated that "more than 40 percent of all people with schizophrenia end up in supervised group housing, nursing homes or hospitals. Another 6 percent end up in jail, usually for misdemeanors or petty crimes, while an equal proportion end up on the streets."

In Europe, Newsweek reported that if clinical trials pan out, "schizophrenia could be treated with cheap, accessible anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen." Higher inflammation levels resulted in worse symptoms of schizophrenia. Bloomfield, according to the Newsweek report, said that over-the-counter medication could be used to treat schizophrenia in the future if the clinical trials go as they suspect.

"It could be something as simple as [ibuprofen]. It would need to be tried and tested...but something like ibuprofen or just any anti-inflammatory."

Schizophrenia affects more than 21 million people worldwide, and according to the World Health Organization, one in two sufferers do not receive treatment for their condition.

[Photo Credit: vmiramontes | Flickr| cropped to fit | Creative Commons Attribution 2.0]