The Myth of Schizophrenia as a Progressive Brain Disease
Schizophrenia Bulletin November 20, 201
*To whom correspondence should be addressed; St Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, 100West 5th Street, Hamilton, Ontario L8N3K7, Canada; tel: 905-522-1155 x 36250, fax: 905-381-5633, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Schizophrenia has historically been considered to be a deteriorating disease, a view reinforced by recent MRI findings of progressive brain tissue loss over the early years of illness. On the other hand, the notion that recovery from schizophrenia is possible is increasingly embraced by consumer and family groups.
This review critically examines the evidence from longitudinal studies of (1) clinical outcomes, (2) MRI brain volumes, and (3) cognitive functioning.
First, the evidence shows that although approximately 25% of people with schizophrenia have a poor long-term outcome, few of these show the incremental loss of function that is characteristic of neurodegenerative illnesses.
Second, MRI studies demonstrate subtle developmental abnormalities at first onset of psychosis and then further decreases in brain tissue volumes; however, these latter decreases are explicable by the effects of antipsychotic medication, substance abuse, and other secondary factors.
Third, while patients do show cognitive deficits compared with controls, cognitive functioning does not appear to deteriorate over time. The majority of people with schizophrenia have the potential to achieve long-term remission and functional recovery. The fact that some experience deterioration in functioning over time may reflect poor access, or adherence, to treatment, the effects of concurrent conditions, and social and financial impoverishment.
Mental health professionals need to join with patients and their families in understanding that schizophrenia is not a malignant disease that inevitably deteriorates over time but rather one from which most people can achieve a substantial degree of recovery.