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How does schizophrenia first develop in the brain?

Research awardFellows Award programme

Funding period2018-2021

InstitutionUniversity of Cambridge

LocationUnited Kingdom


Dr Petra Vértes is looking at what’s going on in the brain when symptoms of schizophrenia first arise so we can create novel targeted treatments.

The project 

Schizophrenia affects 1% of the population and has life-long impacts. Our understanding of the brain processes behind the condition remain limited, meaning it’s difficult to treat. 

We know that the brain undergoes huge reorganisation during teenage years and schizophrenia often first arises during this period. But we don’t yet have a clear understanding of the specific mechanisms going awry and the genes that could be responsible for them. 

Dr Petra Vertes and her team at the University of Cambridge are looking at genetic data and brain scans to uncover the biological processes responsible for psychosis and  other symptoms experienced by people with schizophrenia.

The process 

To begin her research, Petra will analyse brain scans collected from hundreds of ‘healthy’ volunteers, people who have already experienced psychosis, and a group of people who have been identified to be at risk.  

These scans will reveal the patterns in the brain that could be unique to schizophrenia and those at risk.

But these patterns can only tell us so much – in order to improve treatments, we need to understand what they mean biologically.

To do this, Petra will cross-reference her scans with the Allen Brain Atlas. The Atlas took over a decade to compile and it maps the activity of all known genes across the entire brain. Once she’s got the relevant genetic information, she’ll be able to further understand which biological processes could be disrupted in schizophrenia.

Her work will give her a window into what’s happening in the brain as it develops during adolescence and, crucially, what’s different for people who grow to have symptoms of schizophrenia.

The potential

Petra’s study offers vital knowledge into the emergence of schizophrenia at a biological level, highlighting which molecules and genes are important. Although drug treatments for schizophrenia are available, they tend only to work for some symptoms and don’t work at all for a significant number of patients.

This understanding provides the basis to create better treatments that target important networks in the brain so we can improve the lives of people facing schizophrenia.

Supported by the Stephen Palmer Fellowship fund.

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