Schizophrenia due to faulty brain wiring, according to NUIG co-led research

Changes in white matter right across the brain have been conclusively linked to schizophrenia in an international study co-led by NUIG (Pic: NUIG)

The hallucinations, delusions and cognitive difficulties experienced by people with schizophrenia are due to widespread damage to the brain’s wiring.

That’s according to research carried about by scientists across the world as part of the ENIGMA consortium and co-lead by NUI Galway.

“It’s almost 40 years since we had the first clues that schizophrenia was associated with changes in the brain structure,” said Professor Gary Donohue, NUIG, a senior author on the study published in Molecular Psychiatry.

“What the ENIGMA consortium has achieved here is to provide definitive proof that these changes are not specific to any one area of the brain, but rather reflect subtle, yet widespread changes throughout the brain.”

“In terms of the idea that schizophrenia might be caused by a mis-wiring of the brain, this study provides unequivocal evidence that this is the case,” said Professor Donohue. “The next step will be to identify the individual genetics variants that lead to the mis-wiring,” Prof Donohue added.

Schizophrenia has been the focus of neuroimaging studies for decades, yet its neurobiology remained only partially understood. The World Health Organisation has described the disease as a leading cause of disability, and more disabling than paraplegia or blindness in 18 to 35 year olds.

Prof Gary Donohoe, Psychology, NUIG, was a senior author on the research (Pic: Aengus McMahon)

The ENIGMA consortium brought together researchers from all over the world to conduct the first large-scale, co-ordinated study of white matter differences in people with schizophrenia.

The researchers examined samples from 4,322 individuals, and that large number allowed for greater power to identify changes across the entire brain than has been possible with previous studies.

The consortium team used a technology called diffusion tensor imaging to show that, in people with schizophrenia, the white matter fibres which connect different brain regions are frayed making communication between different regions ‘sub optimal’. Changes were seen right across the brain.

This is the first conclusive evidence to support the ‘dysconnectivity hypothesis’ which held that schizophrenia may involve abnormal or inefficient communication between brain regions due to disturbances in the pattern of white matter.


Schizophrenia linked to abnormal blood vessels in the brain

Dr Matthew Campbell, TCD, has, with co-workers, discovered a link between faulty blood vessels in the brain and the development of schizophrenia

Faults in in blood vessels in the brain may play a major role in the development of schizophrenia, a condition which affects about 1 per cent of Irish people.

That’s according to new research from scientists at at TCD and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) published in Molecular Psychiatry.

The network of blood vessels in the brain regulates the transport of energy and materials in and out of the brain, moving across the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

Abnormalities in the BBB may be a critical factor in the development of schizophrenia and other brain disorders, the Ireland-based researchers report.

“Our recent findings have, for the first time, suggested that schizophrenia is a brain disorder associated with abnormalities of brain blood vessels,” said Dr Matthew Campbell, Assistant Professor of Neurovascular Genetics at TCD.

“The concept of tailoring drugs to regulate and treat abnormal brain vessels is a novel treatment strategy and offers great potential to complement existing treatments of this debilitating disease,” said Dr Campbell.

“While it is very well accepted that improving cardiovascular health can reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks, we now believe that drugs aimed at improving cardiovascular health may be an additional strategy to treating brain diseases in the future,” Dr Campbell added.


Is your cat dangerous? Microsoft aiming to ‘solve’ cancer problem; First human head transplant planned; Obesity gene & weight loss

This interview was first broadcast on the 22nd September 2016 on East Coast FM’s The Morning Show with Declan Meehan


Are cats a risk for to your mental and physical health, or have the risks been overblown? [Picture source: Wikipedia]

Justification for torture is scientifically bogus, according to Irish neuroscientist

The justification for torture in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Algeria and many other places has always been that, while distasteful, it produces results that save innocent lives.

This premise is scientifically bogus, according to TCD neuroscientist Professor Shane O’Mara. The neuroscientist details exactly why in his new book ‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work‘ (Harvard University Press)

Torture Doesn't Work

Sexist toys putting girls off science; 9am school start too early for teenagers; 30,000 old virus brought back to life; mental health ‘apps’ review

Click above to listen to discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan.

This was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 10th September 2015

Sexist Toys

Are sexist toys turning girls off science? Many scientists believe they are (Source: Independent, UK)

A quick visit to a toy store confirms that many toys are heavily marketed towards either boys or girls, not both.

Sexist toys, critics say,  encourage nurturing and a pretty appearance, while boys focus on building things, and competing with other boys.

This is sending an early message to girls that activities which involve building, creating and problem solving are not meant for them.

This, according to  Professor Dame Athena Donald, the new President of the British Science Association, explains why girls are often turned off by science, and particularly hard science subjects like physics.

Sleep research is finding that teenagers starting school at 9am are sleep deprived, and suggest 10am as a time more in keeping with youngster’s natural body clocks.

Scientists have brought a 30,000 year old virus back to life. It was frozen in Siberian ice, melted due to global warming. There is a concern that the virus may be dangerous to humans, and safety testing is underway.

Up to 60% of people that have a mental health problem do not access health professionals, for a variety of reasons. Mental health ‘apps’ – against this background – are proving popular with many first time therapy users.

The ‘beauty bias’; aging is relative; new CF drug; anxiety is hereditary

Brad and Angelina

We are hard-wired to behave more positively towards good looking people, science suggests (Source:

Many of us have long suspected that good-looking people get away with more, now scientists in China have confirmed that in a study of several hundred men using brain scanning techniques.

Why is it that some people seem ‘old’ at 50, while others look relatively youthful into retirement? The answer might lie in how well our body protects our DNA, according to a New Zealand study.

Cystic Fibrosis is a deadly genetic disease which affects lung functioning, and is more common in Ireland per head of population than anywhere in the world. A new drug, called Orkambi, is showing ‘great improvements’ in lung function, and quality of life in recent trials according to Cystic Fibrosis Ireland.

Got an anxious parent, or two? Then you are more likely to be anxious or depressed yourself, compared to the rest of the population, according to new research which says 35% of anxiety is hereditary.

Click below to hear a discussion about the above topics on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

This was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 9th July 2015

Why gossip is good; creative people more prone to mental illness; world’s first bio limb; and how eyes betray thoughts


Gossiping evolved in humans as a way to know who to trust [Credit;]

Gossip is a way for people to know who to trust, and whom not to trust, when living in large social groups, scientists say.

Studies have found that the single biggest factor in determining how long we’ll live is how big our social network is. That network is maintained by gossip.

A study of 86,000 Icelanders has found that creative people such as dancers, painters and writers have a 25 per cent higher chance of carrying genes associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disease.

The world’s first bio limb has been grown by scientists. The limb, a forearm was grown on a rat. The limb is ‘seeded’ with cells from the recipient that mean it is not regarded as ‘foreign’ by the body, and it looks more natural that bionic limbs that have been developed.

The way our eyes dilate, or move around, can determine what we are thinking, scientists have found. This can help predict when a person is unsure, and vulnerable to being sold on ideas or products. It can even be used to determine whether a person is going to chose a big or small number in a list of numbers, and influence their moral choices. To listen to a discussion on the above, on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan, click below.

This item was first broadcast on East Coast FM on the 11th June 2015

Gay people in Ireland seven times more likely to attempt suicide

Gay Suicide Risk

Gay people in Ireland have a tenfold risk of self-harm behaviours (Credit: Adam Lau)

Gay people in Ireland are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexuals, according to new research by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Professor Mary Cannon, a psychiatrist, who led the study, said the “striking” finding was a link between sexual orientation and mental ill health.

A hugely elevated risk of mood disorder, self harm and attempted suicide was found among lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth when Cannon’s team followed up a study started in 2001. “We know people who engage in suicide attempts and plans are at greater risk later from suicide,” said Cannon.

In 2001, 212 students aged 13-15 were randomly selected at several northside Dublin schools in a study to assess levels of mental disorder. About 80% agreed to take part in the recent follow-up survey.

About 6% identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The study found the mental health of this group was far worse than that of heterosexual peers.

“There were high rates of depression and about 50% had engaged in an act of deliberate self harm, such as minor cutting and overdoses, compared with less than 20% for the rest,” said Cannon. “It appears if you are of minority sexual orientation you are at a tenfold risk of self-harm behaviours.”

The reason is unclear, although there is evidence that being part of a minority group suffering discrimination is itself stressful. Cannon said research by the National Suicide Research Foundation indicates young people with worries about their sexual orientation and who were bullied had higher rates of self-harm. The disapproval of family members may also be a factor.

“They [the LGBT group] seem to have more problems in the family environment,” Cannon said. “Those who are working seem to be having some difficulties with colleagues. I think a lot of it is to do with these young people just not fitting into their environment.

Odhran Allen, director of mental health in the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network also described the findings as striking. Other research shows the experience of being LGBT in Ireland can have a negative impact on mental health, he said. “When LGBT people experience a number of stressful situations, such as fear of coming out, lack of support after coming out, harassment in their communities, or homophobic bullying, this increases their risk of self-harm and suicide,” he said.

Cannon and her team are now planning to look at other risk factors for self-harm and suicide attempts and to rank them. “My hunch would be that being of a minority sexual orientation may be quite high up the list,” she said.

Michael Barron, executive director of BeLonG To, a service for LGBT young people called the findings worrying. He said: “It is so important that families and communities understand that bullying and prejudice, far from being part of growing up, at putting young people’s lives at risk”

This article appeared first in The Sunday Times, Irish edition, 31/03/2013

Chemical differences when men and women argue

Men and women react differently – chemically – during an argument and during the aftermath ‘cooling down’ period. [Credit:]

A body of scientific evidence shows that men and women differ – chemically – when it comes to arguments between couples.

For example, a Pennsylvania State University  study, which measured the level of stress hormone, cortisol, found significant differences between arguing men and women.

The levels of cortisol in men were linked with the level of hostility in an argument, while in women, the stress levels were often the result of  a perceived ‘lack of engagement’ by men in the issue at hand.

The scientists asked the couples to discuss disputed issues between them, such as finances, or housecare, and them took saliva samples before and after they argued.

Men took longer to recover chemically and get back to normal cortisol levels than women after a particularly hostile argument.

The scientists theorised that women recovered quicker from such hostile arguments because they at least felt that issues had been aired and weren’t being ignored.

Another study by the University of Minnesota found a link between how good people are at ‘cooling down’ from an argument, and early childhood experience.

The Minnesota researchers found that individuals with a strong bond with their caregiver aged 12 to 18 months were better able to recover following an argument, move on, and not be left ruminating and angry – whether they were men or women.

When it comes to stress, and coping with it; it seems the blueprint is laid down early.

LISTEN: Interview with Declan Meehan 1 Nov ’12  on East Coast FM

Brain Scans and Mental Illness

PET scan images of a ‘depressed’ brain compared to a non-depressed brain produced by the Mayo Clinic in the USA (Credit: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)

It hasn’t happened quite yet, but advances in brain scanning technology mean that in future doctors will most likely be able to diagnose mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder using brain scans.

At the moment there is no biological or physical test for mental illness, and the presence, or not, of disease is down to the experience and the judgement of the consultant psychiatrist.

The decision as to whether a person is mentally ill or not is based on verbal responses, and close observation of body language and things like personal hygiene.

There are plenty of technical obstacles to overcome first, but in future doctors should be able to use brain scans not only to confirm the presence of mental illness, and then to determine how well prescribed medication is working in the brain.

The Clinical Neuroimaging Laboratory in NUI Galway has studies underway using brain scans to look at volunteers that have psychosis and bipolar disorder.

Listen: Interview with Dr Dara Cannon, Co-Director of the Clinical Neuroimaging Lab at NUIG

Broadcast on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 08.12.2011