A new study has revealed that puberty may have impact on areas of the brain that contribute to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia in youth.

Jean A. Frazier, M.D., Director of the Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatric Research Program at Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School, in Massachusetts and an ACNP member, led the study.

While studying the brains of youngsters with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the researchers came across the fact that these children have size differences in some brain areas between these disorders and between genders. These changes are present in key areas of the brain that are involved in reward, motivation, sensory input, emotion and memory.

The researchers said that looking at these areas could help them understand developmental processes that occur around the time mental disorders develop.

The brains of children with bipolar disorder are different from the brains of children with schizophrenia, and there are brain differences between boys and girls also.

Investigators indicated that such findings could help them have a better understanding of the role of gender in brain processes, and will also tell how it affects the development of mental illness. Also, they could help lay the foundation for identifying different possible treatment approaches to these illnesses in boys and girls.

"To our knowledge, our study is the first to determine if specific areas of the brain differ according to sex and adolescent development, compared to children without these disorders," said Frazier.

The team of researchers examined 103 brain scans of children and adolescents with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and found that the nucleus accumbens (a brain structure that is involved in motivation and pleasure) was larger in bipolar disorder.

It was also discovered that the thalamus (the part of the brain through which sensory information passes to the cerebral cortex) was smaller in children with schizophrenia.

This work indicated that with the development of brain, some structures in the brain may be more susceptible to mental illness than others in children with these illnesses, particularly during pubertal development. These developmental brain changes may be biomarkers – specific traits, making the brain more vulnerable to these mental illnesses.

Eventually, when Frazier analyzed the entire bipolar group in comparison with the healthy children, the hippocampus (the part of the brain which plays a central role in memory) was smaller in youth with bipolar disorder after puberty, especially in girls.

However, younger (pre-pubescent) children did not show this difference.

The findings suggested how the development of brain of such vulnerable children is influenced by sex hormones and that the onset of puberty may be associated with the abnormal brain development seen in these children.

"Future studies need to look at sex differences over time in order to understand more about these mental disorders and the information gleaned from these studies may help researchers determine how to best help children who suffer from these conditions," said Frazier.

He added: "This may allow us to find improved treatment, perhaps in a sex-specific way.

These findings reassert the evidence that adolescence is a critical period of vulnerability for the development of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The onset initiates a set of sex -specific brain developmental processes that may have an important role in the emergence of these disorders.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP).

Via Times of India