Schizophrenia could be treated with cheap, accessible anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, according to new research.
The study, published on Friday in the American Journal of Psychiatry, concluded that people at risk of developing schizophrenia showed high levels of inflammation in their brains, which was also true of patients already suffering from the disorder. They also discovered that higher inflammation levels resulted in a greater severity of symptoms in persons likely to develop the disorder.
The findings mean that, if detected early enough through brain scans, schizophrenia could potentially be prevented or at least mitigated in at-risk patients using simple anti-inflammatory drugs.
Peter Bloomfield, a doctoral student at the Medical Research Council's (MRC) Clinical Sciences Centre and the paper's lead author, says that the findings could change the way schizophrenia is diagnosed and treated. "There's potential for us to treat very early and also this is a completely new type of theory of schizophrenia, so a whole new range of medication could be produced based on this research," says Bloomfield.
He adds that over-the-counter medication could be used to treat the mental disorder in the future, subject to clinical trials. "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, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite the fact that it is treatable with anti-psychotic medication and psychological therapy, the WHO said that one in two sufferers do not receive treatment for the condition.
The study assessed the levels of activity of immune cells in the brain—known as microglia—of 56 patients in total, including current sufferers of schizophrenia as well as those at risk of the disease and those showing symptoms of the disorder. Researchers injected the subjects with a chemical dye which sticks to microglia, which they then used to record the activity levels of the cells.
Microglial cells are the primary immune cells of the brain and spinal cord (or the central nervous system), where their function is to destroy pathogens and clean up debris. The cells also prune connections between brain cells, known as synapses.
Bloomfield explains that abnormal activity levels in microglia can lead to patients developing the symptoms of schizophrenia—including hallucinations (hearing voices) and delusional thoughts—by changing the way in which the brain is hard-wired. "If they're over or under active or active in an inappropriate way, then you would end up with the wrong number of synapses or inappropriate connections between different parts of the brain, which would fit very well with our hypothesis of how schizophrenia is actually manifesting," says Bloomfield.
Oliver Howes, head of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre's psychiatric imaging group and the paper's senior author, told Sky News that the advance was the most significant in schizophrenia research for decades. "We're still using treatments that were essentially first developed in the 1950s and we desperately need new avenues and new approaches," said Howes.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers