BACKGROUND: Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain in patients with schizophrenia has consistently demonstrated several abnormalities. These are thought to be neurodevelopmental in origin, as they have also been described in first episode cases, although there may be a progressive component. It is not known at which point in development these abnormalities are evident, nor to what extent they are genetically or environmentally mediated. METHODS: One hundred forty-seven high-risk subjects (with at least two affected first or second degree relatives), 34 patients in their first episode, and 36 healthy control subjects received an MRI scan covering the whole brain. After inhomogeneity correction, regions of interest were traced by three group-blind raters with good inter-rater reliability. Regional brain volumes were related to measures of genetic liability to schizophrenia and to psychotic symptoms elicited at structured psychiatric interviews. RESULTS: High-risk subjects had statistically significantly reduced mean volumes of the left and right amygdalo-hippocampus and thalamus, as compared to healthy control subjects. They also had bilaterally larger amygdalo-hippocampi and bilaterally smaller lenticular nuclei than the schizophrenics. High-risk subjects with symptoms had smaller brains than those without. The volumes of the prefrontal lobes and the thalamus were the only consistent associates of genetic liability. CONCLUSIONS: Subjects at high risk of developing schizophrenia have abnormalities of brain structure similar to but not identical to those found in schizophrenia. Our results suggest that some structural abnormalities are genetic trait or vulnerability markers, others are environmentally mediated, and that the development of symptoms is associated with a third overlapping group of structural changes. Particular risk factors for schizophrenia may interact at discrete time points of neurodevelopment with different effects on specific brain regions and may represent relatively distinct disease processes.
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