Researchers say they have pinpointed a weak spot in the brain that develops late and degenerates first, increasing susceptibility to both Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.
"Early doctors called schizophrenia 'premature dementia,' but until now we had no clear evidence that the same parts of the brain might be associated with two such different diseases," Hugh Perry, chairman of the Medical Research Council's Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, which funded the work, said in a press release.
The study "provides an important, and previously missing, link between development, aging and disease processes in the brain."
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Although much more research would be required before the work would be used in a clinic, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers a glimpse that may help doctors understand who is at risk of developing these diseases.
"Schizophrenia can be potentially devastating but at the moment it's very difficult to predict with certainty who is going to have a good prognosis and who might have a poor one," Dr. Michael Bloomfield of University College London told the Science Media Center.
"This study brings us a step closer to being able to make this prediction, so patients could in the future receive better targeted treatments."
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The Oxford University researchers found the spot by examining MRI brain scans of 484 healthy volunteers between the ages of eight and 85, looking for patterns. Once they noticed the network that developed later and degenerated first, they compared the scans with those of Alzeimer's and schizophrenia patients. The comparison showed that the same brain regions were affected.
"These complex regions, which combine information coming from various senses, seem to be more vulnerable than the rest of the brain to both schizophrenia and Alzheimer's, even though these two diseases have different origins and appear at very different, almost opposite, times of life," lead researcher Dr. Gwenaëlle Douaud said in a press release.
It's not known whether the region is affected by genetic or environmental factors.