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How Rats on PCP Might Have Unravelled Schizophrenia

Searching for physical signs of psychiatric devastation.
Image: Quilt embroidered by a schizophrenic patient/Wiki

Schizophrenia is a disease of unraveling. Ordered thoughts, of the sort that you take for granted in your day-to-day functional life, just fall apart, leaving a kind of nonsensical thought-stew to arrive in a sufferer's consciousness in an uncontrollable torrent. The result is, in a sense, not being able to think in any ordered way, with the manifestations being paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, something called thought-blocking—where the sufferer suddenly loses their train of thought mid-sentence—severe acute memory problems, and a general inability to do anything. It's fucking terrifying, a disorder in the most literal sense of the word.

It's also a disabling (with a nearly 80 percent unemployment rate among sufferers) and tremendously stigmatizing condition, even more so in the current climate of faux-concern over mental health and its relationship to shootings. Given all that, the disease remains something of a diagnostic puzzle, embodying elements of nearly every other severe mental health condition. And, like every other mental health condition, it's diagnosed behaviorally; there is no good diagnostic criteria that uses physical characteristics. Following from that, there is also no cure or even very good treatment. Psychiatric drugs treat the symptoms of schizophrenia, which is great and medication keeps many patients functional, but it's still not enough to make schizophrenics free.

Enter the rats. Rats are studied in this context because they have brains remarkably similar to our own, albeit a whole lot smaller. And it's possible to simulate schizophrenic symptoms in lab rats with help from PCP—you know, angel dust. It makes sense: the effects of PCP typically involve a similar brain scrambling, with paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions being the result. Research out yesterday from a team at the University of Southern Denmark claims to have detected a possible physiological signature of the disorder in drugged-up rat brains, a potential disease root.

Specifically, the researchers identified 352 different proteins in the rat brains that either turned on or off as a result of the drug, proteins that otherwise would have remained unchanged. Once these proteins flipped, they started cascades of effects around the brain, changing things like metabolism and calcium balance. The changes were detected using mass spectrometry, a technique that determines the chemical composition of a particular brain sample by bombing it with electrons and recording the resulting spectra.

"These 352 proteins are what causes the rats to change their behaviour and the events are probably comparable to the devastating changes in a schizophrenic brain," noted Ole Nørregaard Jensen, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the university. "These 352 proteins will be extremely interesting to study in closer detail to see if they also alter in people with schizophrenia - and if that's the case, it will of course be interesting to try to develop a drug that can prevent the protein changes that lead to schizophrenia."

The prospective result, the first effective therapy for schizophrenia, would be akin to a re-raveling, returning order to a cognitive scramble. It would return schizophrenics to the world, and that's good for everyone.