Dopamine and schizophrenia: connection and treatment

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Schizophrenia is a mental health problem that can disrupt thought processes, perceptions, emotional responsiveness, and social interactions. Changes in chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, can contribute to the development of symptoms of schizophrenia.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemical signals that identify and coordinate specific types of nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. They can also transmit signals to muscles and glands that release hormones.

When the neurotransmitter reaches a target cell, it attaches to specific receptors and triggers a certain action in the cell.

The brain releases dopamine in response to any kind of reward and during pleasurable activities. A person’s dopamine levels can also go up in anticipation of such rewards or activities.

Dopamine can play a role in motivation, desires and cravings. It also plays a role in muscle movement, mood, and decision making.

This article further explores the link between dopamine and schizophrenia. It also examines how to treat schizophrenia.

As the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports, dopamine may play a key role in schizophrenia.

The hypothesis that dopamine was involved in schizophrenia arose early 1950s, when a drug called phenothiazine, known to block dopamine receptors, has reduced psychotic symptoms.

New discoveries have shed more light. 2016 research observes that abnormal functioning of the dopaminergic system contributes to the development of symptoms of schizophrenia.

What’s more Study 2020 concludes that altered dopamine signaling is present in people with this mental health problem – based on animal studies, post-mortem research, and findings from investigations into the effects of drugs that block or enhance transmission of dopamine.

Specifically, research from 2014 indicates that overactivity of the dopamine D2 receptor in the subcortical and limbic regions of the brain contributes to certain symptoms of schizophrenia, including hallucinations and delusions. And less activity of the dopamine D1 receptor in the prefrontal cortex contributes to the development of cognitive problems and other symptoms.

Schizophrenia is a mental health problem that can disrupt thought processes, perceptions, emotional responsiveness, and social interactions.

It often appears in late adolescence or early adulthood. Schizophrenia is quite rare, affecting approximately 0.25–0.64% people in the United States.

It can be difficult to diagnose in these age groups, as the first signs can include behaviors such as:

  • a change of friends
  • a drop in grades
  • sleep problems
  • irritability

While these behaviors can be common in adolescents, other early signs of schizophrenia can include isolation from others, unusual thoughts, and increased suspicion.

Once a person develops schizophrenia, they may start to experience a number of common symptoms. We explore some of them below.

Hallucinations

During a hallucination, a person most often hears voices, sees things, or smells things that others cannot perceive. This experience is very real for the person who is going through it.

Voices can be critical or threatening, and it can be distressing.

Illusions

Delusions are false beliefs. They tend not to change when the person is presented with facts that prove the beliefs are incorrect.

A person with schizophrenia can believe this:

  • They are victims of a threat.
  • They are at the center of a plot.
  • An outside force or person controls his thoughts or actions.
  • They are very important.

People with delusions often have difficulty concentrating and may also have confused thoughts. In addition, they may feel that their thoughts are blocked.

Negative symptoms

It could be about being emotionally flat or talking in a disconnected way.

Negative symptoms can make it difficult to start or keep up with certain activities. A person who suffers from it may also show little interest in life and find it difficult to maintain relationships.

In some cases, people confuse the negative symptoms of schizophrenia with clinical depression.

Cognitive problems

A person with schizophrenia may also have trouble remembering things and may have trouble organizing their thoughts.

They may also have anosognosia, which is a lack of insight. This can cause a person not to know they have the disease, making treatment much more difficult.

Schizophrenia is a disease that lasts a lifetime. However, effective treatment can help a person manage their symptoms.

Treatments can vary and may depend on a person’s specific symptoms. A doctor often tailors the approach to a person’s needs. The treatment plan may involve a combination of therapy and antipsychotic medication.

Below some common treatments for schizophrenia.

Antipsychotic drugs

A person with schizophrenia may take antipsychotic drugs to reduce the intensity and frequency of certain symptoms.

Some side effects of these drugs understand weight gain, dry mouth, restlessness and drowsiness. While some may go away over time, others may persist for longer periods of time.

Psychosocial treatments

These include cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral skills training, supported employment, and other interventions.

Many of these treatments help relieve the negative and cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia and teach the person strategies to cope with the challenges of the disease.

Psychosocial treatment can also help a person pursue certain goals, such as finding a job, attending school, or forming lasting relationships.

Family education and support

There are a number of education programs for family members and others close to someone with schizophrenia.

These programs can teach people about symptoms and treatments, as well as how to support someone with the disease. This may ultimately reduce the amount of distress the person with schizophrenia is experiencing.

Coordinated specialized care

Coordinated Specialized Care (SCC) has a number of treatment options.

A team of healthcare professionals work closely with a person to ensure that they can make effective treatment decisions, involving family members where possible.

CSC can include a combination of:

  • psychotherapy
  • medication management
  • case management
  • support for employment and education
  • education and support for the family

According to National Institute of Mental Health, CSC is particularly effective in helping people who have had a first episode of psychosis and who have an early stage of schizophrenia.

The institute reports that CSC is more effective than typical care for people with early psychosis and can:

  • reduce the person’s symptoms
  • improve their quality of life
  • increase their involvement at work or school

Schizophrenia is a mental health problem that can have a huge impact on a person’s life. This can cause people to have hallucinations, delusions, a general disinterest in life, and difficulty organizing their thoughts, among other symptoms.

The neurotransmitter dopamine is a chemical messenger associated with mood and motor function. The brain releases dopamine in response to pleasure and rewards. Abnormalities in the dopaminergic system of the brain are related to the development of symptoms of schizophrenia.


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