The brain’s ability to mimic actions has long been considered key to development and social interaction. A Vanderbilt University study of MRI scans of individuals performing imitation-related tasks has shown that an important learning center under performs in individuals with schizophrenia. This research has opened a door for new insights on a disease that remains difficult to understand and offers the chance for more successful treatment, especially in terms of cognitive skills.
Imitation and mimicking are vital tools in early human development, and remain important ways for people to adapt to new social situations, something schizophrenic patients have difficulty with. Mimicking helps people make new friends, take part in social gatherings, learn new tasks and change habits. Directly treating mimicking problems promises new, effective treatment options for schizophrenic patients who wish to adopt a more independent lifestyle.
The Study’s Findings
In the study, patients with diagnosed schizophrenia were asked to imitate hand movements. In a healthy brain, the fMRI scan taken during these tasks would have shown significant brain activity in sections associated with imitation; instead, the results showed abnormal brain activity among patients with schizophrenia, indicating neural problems with carrying out the imitations. They could easily watch others make gestures, but when it came to making the same gestures themselves, they struggled. As Philip D. Harvey, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine pointed out, “While the study of the activation of the brain while observing versus imitating hand movements may seem too specific to be relevant, it is actually targeting a critical learning process with specific relevance to social functioning.”
Schizophrenia’s Causes and Symptoms
These results do not mean a lack of imitation skills is a cause of schizophrenia. Characterized by recurring delusions, hallucinations, agitation and other symptoms of serious brain disorders, schizophrenia is a complex disease, and a single cause is unknown, and unlikely. Both genes and brain chemistry play important roles in schizophrenia. Certain genes may cause malfunctions in how chemicals in the brain are produced, and scientists suspect environmental conditions also contribute to the disorder’s development. Specific neurotransmitters, especially those involved in managing dopamine and glutamate, are also suspected of playing a significant role. Other brain abnormalities, including larger-than-average ventricles, have been noticed in patients.
The Vanderbilt study points the way toward more effective treatment of some schizophrenia symptoms, which could make the disorder easier to manage. Schizophrenia has long been associated with social development problems, as patients struggle to make social connections or communicate effectively with others. This can make it difficult to work in certain jobs or to develop relationships. Some of the physical symptoms of schizophrenia are also associated with movement and imitation: Patients may struggle with catatonia, twitching, a lack of facial expression or inflection and similar issues. Finding a neural cause behind these symptoms may point the way to a more holistic treatment for patients.
Used in conjunction with medications such as Aripiprazole, psychosocial treatments can mitigate the symptoms of schizophrenia.
The common form of medication used to treat schizophrenia is antipsychotics, which are strong drugs that can diminish some of the disorder’s worst effects, such as hallucinations or delusions. Traditional drugs include Thorazine and Haldol. Eventually, newer antipsychotics were developed, such as Risperdal and olanzapine, to target psychotic symptoms without the side effects associated with earlier drugs, like a low white blood cell count. Even with the new more advanced antipsychotics, schizophrenia medication can still cause side effects like drowsiness or dangerous interactions with other drugs. This is why psychosocial treatments are also advised.
Psychosocial treatments provide patients with illness management skills, rehabilitation and cognitive behavioral therapy. The focus is on helping patients develop internal methods of dealing with the disorder, which can lessen the dependence on medication. The best strategies combine antipsychotics with long-term psychosocial treatments. Studies like the one conducted at Vanderbilt are bringing more attention to the latter, sometimes-overlooked facet of treatment, which offers schizophrenics additional ways of coping with their symptoms without relying too heavily on medication.Research like this can help us develop a more accurate understanding of how schizophrenics struggle and what types of treatments are most likely to be successful. Despite the immense challenges schizophrenics face, there is evidence the proper social approach can prove effective. Many schizophrenics have found methods of coping with their disorder and have gone on to become influential members of society. This suggests the social problems associated with schizophrenia can be overcome. The fMRI study and others like it bring us closer to finding solutions for schizophrenics.