Study: fMRI reveals biomarker for schizophrenia-related memory loss

A distinctive brain biomarker imaged using fMRI could be a sign of memory problems in schizophrenia patients and may lead to a better understanding and more effective treatment of the disease, according to results of a study published in Biological Psychiatry.

Schizophrenia, a severe mental health condition that causes hallucinations and delusions, also causes a variety of cognitive issues for patients including memory problems, said lead author Jared Van Snellenberg, PhD, of Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

“Of all the symptoms linked to schizophrenia, memory issues may have the greatest impact on quality of life, as they can make it difficult to hold down a job and maintain social relationships,” he said in a university press release. “Unfortunately, we know very little about the cause of these memory problems and have no way to treat them.”

Snellenberg and his team redesigned existing memory tests used in conjunction with fMRI to measure disruptions in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to be more complex and provide subjects with more levels of difficulty. They gave the enhanced test to groups of healthy patients and those with memory problems associated with a schizophrenia diagnosis.

They found that healthy patients demonstrated a gradual increase in brain activity in the area associated with memory, followed by a gradual decrease as the task got harder, while schizophrenia patients had significantly weaker responses, particularly in patients who had the most difficulty with the memory task.

“Our findings provide evidence that the [disruptions in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] is compromised in patients with schizophrenia,” said Snellenberg. “What they don’t tell us is why, which is something we ultimately hope to figure out. In the meantime, we now have a specific target for treatment and a new way to measure whether a treatment is working.”