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Excessive alcohol use is associated with brain damage but less is known about brain effects from moderate alcohol use. Previous findings indicate that patients with severe mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, are vulnerable to alcohol-related brain damage. We investigated the association between levels of alcohol consumption and cortical and subcortical brain structures in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder patients and healthy controls, and investigated for group differences for this association.
1.5 T structural magnetic resonance images were acquired of 609 alcohol-using participants (165 schizophrenia patients, 172 bipolar disorder patients, 272 healthy controls), mean (s.d.) age 34.2 (9.9) years, 52% men. Past year alcohol use was assessed with the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test – Consumption part (AUDIT-C). General linear models were used to investigate associations between AUDIT-C score and cortical thickness, surface area, and total brain and subcortical volumes.
Increasing AUDIT-C score was linearly associated with thinner cortex in medial and dorsolateral frontal and parieto-occipital regions, and with larger left lateral ventricle volume. There was no significant interaction between AUDIT-C score and diagnostic group. The findings remained significant after controlling for substance use disorders, antipsychotic medication and illness severity.
The results show a dose-dependent relationship between alcohol use and thinner cortex and ventricular expansion. The findings are present also at lower levels of alcohol consumption and do not differ between schizophrenia or bipolar disorder patients compared to healthy controls. Our results do not support previous findings of increased vulnerability for alcohol-related brain damage in severe mental illness.
Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder share genetic risk factors and one possible illness mechanism is abnormal myelination. T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tissue intensities are sensitive to myelin content. Therefore, the contrast between grey- and white-matter intensities may reflect myelination along the cortical surface.
MRI images were obtained from patients with schizophrenia (n = 214), bipolar disorder (n = 185), and healthy controls (n = 278) and processed in FreeSurfer. The grey/white-matter contrast was computed at each vertex as the difference between average grey-matter intensity (sampled 0–60% into the cortical ribbon) and average white-matter intensity (sampled 0–1.5 mm into subcortical white matter), normalized by their average. Group differences were tested using linear models covarying for age and sex.
Patients with schizophrenia had increased contrast compared to controls bilaterally in the post- and precentral gyri, the transverse temporal gyri and posterior insulae, and in parieto-occipital regions. In bipolar disorder, increased contrast was primarily localized in the left precentral gyrus. There were no significant differences between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Findings of increased contrast remained after adjusting for cortical area, thickness, and gyrification. We found no association with antipsychotic medication dose.
Increased contrast was found in highly myelinated low-level sensory and motor regions in schizophrenia, and to a lesser extent in bipolar disorder. We propose that these findings indicate reduced intracortical myelin. In accordance with the corollary discharge hypothesis, this could cause disinhibition of sensory input, resulting in distorted perceptual processing leading to the characteristic positive symptoms of schizophrenia.
First-episode psychosis (FEP) patients show structural brain abnormalities. Whether the changes are progressive or not remain under debate, and the results from longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies are mixed. We investigated if FEP patients showed a different pattern of regional brain structural change over a 1-year period compared with healthy controls, and if putative changes correlated with clinical characteristics and outcome.
MRIs of 79 FEP patients [SCID-I-verified diagnoses: schizophrenia, psychotic bipolar disorder, or other psychoses, mean age 27.6 (s.d. = 7.7) years, 66% male] and 82 healthy controls [age 29.3 (s.d. = 7.2) years, 66% male] were acquired from the same 1.5 T scanner at baseline and 1-year follow-up as part of the Thematically Organized Psychosis (TOP) study, Oslo, Norway. Scans were automatically processed with the longitudinal stream in FreeSurfer that creates an unbiased within-subject template image. General linear models were used to analyse longitudinal change in a wide range of subcortical volumes and detailed thickness and surface area estimates across the entire cortex, and associations with clinical characteristics.
FEP patients and controls did not differ significantly in annual percentage change in cortical thickness or area in any cortical region, or in any of the subcortical structures after adjustment for multiple comparisons. Within the FEP group, duration of untreated psychosis, age at illness onset, antipsychotic medication use and remission at follow-up were not related to longitudinal brain change.
We found no significant longitudinal brain changes over a 1-year period in FEP patients. Our results do not support early progressive brain changes in psychotic disorders.
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