Mental and physical exercise can help improve behavioural deficits in schizophrenia and repair damaged chemical transmitter pathways in the brain, a new study by researchers in Australia has shown.
The study, carried it out on a mouse model, was conducted by researchers at Melbourne's Howard Florey Institute in collaboration with a team from Mental Health Research Institute of Victoria.
As a part of their study researchers led by Dr Anthony Hannan, Dr Caitlin McOmish, and Emma Burrows characterised a genetically altered mouse and discovered that it had schizophrenia-like behaviours, including learning and memory problems, the inability to process complex information, and abnormal responses to particular sensory stimuli.
The scientists gave the mice enhanced mental and physical exercise - putting running wheels in their cages, plus interesting items to smell, see and touch, and found that their condition improved significantly.
They also noted that not only did the rodents' schizophrenia-like symptoms ease through physical and mental exercise, but that a specific chemical transmitter pathway found to be abnormal in the cerebral cortex of the mice was selectively rescued.
The researchers also tested an anti-psychotic drug used by humans on the mice and found that it improved their condition. This showed the team that this mouse model was a valid model for schizophrenia in humans.
Dr Hannan said this discovery could pave the way for the development of better treatments for schizophrenia.
"Through our research, and that of others, we hope a new class of therapeutic drugs will be developed that mimic the effects of environmental enrichment in the brain to treat various brain disorders, possibly including schizophrenia," Dr Hannan said.
"Pharmaceutical approaches may not be the sole answer for a given brain disease. People may still need optimal levels of physical and mental activity, as well as a healthy diet, plus the right drugs.
"We have already identified specific molecules that could be targets for what I call 'enviromimetics' and these may have relevance for other brain diseases. However, there are obviously major differences between mice and men, and large-scale clinical trials are needed to identify the most beneficial drugs," he said.
Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that is brought on through a complex and largely unknown interaction of genes and environment.
There is a nature-nurture aspect to schizophrenia because in human identical twins, if one twin develops schizophrenia, there is only a 50 percent chance the other twin, who has identical genes, will develop the illness.
This research is currently an advanced online publication of the international journal Molecular Psychiatry.