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Newer Schizophrenia Drug Stems Loss of Gray Matter

Finding could mean early use of medication might slow progression of disease

FRIDAY, April 8, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The new antipsychotic drug olanzapine prevents the loss of gray matter in the brains of schizophrenia patients, but the older drug haloperidol doesn't offer the same protection, according to research in the latest issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The two-year study included 263 recently diagnosed schizophrenia patients and 58 non-schizophrenic volunteers. Half the schizophrenia patients took olanzapine, and half took haloperidol. On average, the patients taking haloperidol lost about 2 percent (12 cubic centimeters) of gray matter. There was no gray matter loss detected in patients who took olanzapine or in the healthy volunteers.

The patients who lost gray matter, particularly from the brain's frontal lobe, exhibited greater cognitive problems when tested in verbal fluency, verbal learning and memory.

"This is a really big breakthrough," study author Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a prepared statement.

"The drugs we have for schizophrenia can't cure people who've been sick for years, but this study shows that the newer atypical drugs, if started early, can prevent the illness from progressing. If our findings are confirmed, one could argue that we should treat new patients with atypical drugs like olanzapine, rather than older conventional medications such as haloperidol and chlorpromazine," Leiberman said.

"Gray matter contains the bulk of the brain's cells and the billions of connections among the cells. Loss of gray matter in patients with schizophrenia has been linked to social withdrawal and progressive deterioration in cognition and emotion," he noted.

While it has long been recognized that schizophrenia results in progressive worsening of symptoms and mental function, it's only been within the last 10 years that researchers learned that the disease causes actual brain deterioration.

"People used to think that the deterioration was inevitable, but now we're thinking that if you prevent the acute episodes of psychosis in schizophrenia, you can actually stop the loss of gray matter," Lieberman said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about schizophrenia.

SOURCE: Archives of General Psychiatry, news release, April 4, 2005
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