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Scientists unpack testosterone’s role in schizophrenia

Testosterone may trigger a brain chemical process linked to schizophrenia but the same sex hormone can also improve cognitive…

A person with schizophrenia can experience bouts of disordered thinking that can distort their sense of reality, according to the Department of Health. http://www.flickr.com/photos/methad/
Testosterone may trigger a brain chemical process linked to schizophrenia but the same sex hormone can also improve cognitive thinking skills in men with the disorder, two new studies show.

Scientists have long suspected testosterone plays an important role in schizophrenia, which affects more men than women. Men are also more likely to develop psychosis in adolescence, previous research has shown.

A new study on lab rodents by researchers from Neuroscience Research Australia analysed the impact increased testosterone had on levels of dopamine, a brain chemical linked to psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia.

The researchers found that testosterone boosted dopamine sensitivity in adolescent male rodents.

“From these rodent studies, we hypothesise that adolescent increases in circulating testosterone may be a driver of increased dopamine activity in the brains of individuals susceptible to psychosis and schizophrenia,” said senior Neuroscience Research Australia researcher and author of the study, Dr Tertia Purves-Tyson, who is presenting her work at the International Congress on Schizophrenia Research in Florida this week.

Dr Philip Mitchell, Scientia Professor and Head of the School of Psychiatry at the University of NSW, said the research was very interesting.

“The relationship between sex steroids, such as testosterone, and psychiatric disorders has long intrigued researchers. For example, we have known for many years that schizophrenia presents earlier in males than females, but the biological mechanism for this has been poorly understood,” said Dr Mitchell, who was not involved in the study.

“The rodent study by Professor Shannon Weickert from the School of Psychiatry at UNSW and NeuRA is therefore of particular interest. This study suggests an important interplay between circulating testosterone levels and the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine – a neurochemical which has been long implicated in the cause of schizophrenia,” said Dr Mitchell.

“This study suggests that it is the interplay between testosterone and dopamine which is critical. This is an important observation which may very well throw an important light on solving the puzzle of the biological causes of schizophrenia.”

Cognitive thinking

A separate study by Dr Thomas Weickert at Neuroscience Research Australia examined the role testosterone plays in the cognitive thinking skills of men with schizophrenia.

The researchers examined testosterone levels in a group of 29 chronically ill men with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, and a control group of 20 healthy men and asked both groups to take a series of cognition tests.

“Circulating testosterone levels significantly predicted performance on verbal memory, processing speed, and working memory in men with schizophrenia … such that increased normal levels of testosterone were beneficial to thought processing in men with schizophrenia but circulating sex steroid levels did not appear to be related to cognitive function in healthy men,” the researchers reported.

“The results suggest that circulating sex steroids may influence thought processes in men with schizophrenia.”

Dr Melanie McDowall, a researcher at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Institute, said the study added to a large body of evidence demonstrating a link between testosterone and schizophrenia.

“This is not surprising, given the link between testosterone and dopamine,” she said, adding that symptoms of schizophrenia predominantly began after puberty.

“However, as with most endocrine and mental illnesses, schizophrenia is multifaceted (genetic, environmental etc.), hence this may not be the be all and end.”

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Bao-Luo Zhidao

    logged in via Facebook

    has anyone ever studied schizophrenia at all in relation to the idea that perhaps it is a naturally occurring phenomenon in regards to difficult situations and perhaps be some sort of underlying coping mechanism? please, show me... i'm all ears. after all, it is the DSM's milestone coming of age, and all the critics have come out to play :)

    too bad pharmaceuticals don't have a stake in a bit of empathy...

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    1. Bao-Luo Zhidao

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Darren Parker

      sorry Darren, I don't mean to chastising but I think you are way off understanding the difference between the broad definition of schizophrenia and the narrowly defined dissociative identity disorder. We have blamed the media for continuing this stereotype of the 2 meaning the same thing in regards to multiple identities in the same person. Schizophrenia, at best, is a very broad generalisation of what doctors subjectively consider to be you going insane. Plenty of reading material out there. And plenty of critics.

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    2. Bao-Luo Zhidao

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Bao-Luo Zhidao

      furthermore, why is there heavy emphasis on neuroscience in the medical community that make professionals omnipotent in their judgement without an alternative present - simply on the grounds that we cannot truly understand the supposed illnesses as present. In over 6 years, I have barely heard the voices of the critics of psychiatry in the media until the release of the DSM 5. The second a misdiagnosis is made in this area, a person may be branded for life, and the professionals involved will enforce…

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    3. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Bao-Luo Zhidao

      Hi Bao-Luo. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. We run two types of stories on this site: 1) analyses/commentary, which are penned by the academics themselves and 2) news stories written by journalists based on new research and quotes from interviews with academics. This story falls into that second category. It's not always possible or appropriate for the academic to write a piece themselves. Hope this helps clarify.

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    4. Darren Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Bao-Luo Zhidao

      I think you've missed my point.

      Schizophrenia (as you say) is a "broad generalisation [of] ... going insane". If it's "broad", it's unlikely to be the end result of one thing (a coping mechanism).

      MPD, however, is (reportedly) just that: a dissociative disorder directly caused by the mind's attempt to cope with stress (typically, horrific childhood abuse).

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    5. Bao-Luo Zhidao

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Darren Parker

      I think difficult situations is very much a broad term - and what is considered difficult is subjective. By taking out the word "subjective", it changes the meaning of what I said in how you quoted me also.

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    6. Grant Higham

      English Teacher

      In reply to Bao-Luo Zhidao

      I agree in part with this. One question is why does anything happen at any particular point in time. Logically, an amelioration of certain factors and experiences, would lead to breakdowns occurring later, not at all or with lesser extremity. That's how I see it. And that can't just be true of MPD, but also other conditions like schizophrenia, depression, etc. Any case study would be considered research of this nature, otherwise why do case studies at all.

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  2. Tom Hennessy

    Retired

    Testosterone increases production of red blood cells.
    "Testosterone Induced Polycythemia/Erythrocytosis"

    Psychosis of polycythemia.
    "ERYTHREMIA (POLYCYTHEMIA) WITH A PSYCHOSIS"
    "The case is that of a man who developed erythremia at 43 and a severe
    depression at 45 lasting until death at 47"

    Polycythemia is described as a subcategory of hemochromatosis , they appear together.
    "HEMOCHROMATOSIS ASSOCIATED WITH SEVERE DEPRESSIVE
    EPISODES"
    .
    Can removal of blood make a difference?
    "Phlebotomy can result in dramatic improvement of neuropsychiatric
    symptoms"
    "From a previous study on suicidal depression victims, a clear
    correlation between iron level and strand breaks in the brain regions
    could be observed "

    "Acute psychosis in polycythaemia rubra vera"
    "Patient improved markedly following venesection."

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  3. Grant Higham

    English Teacher

    Hi, I recently stumbled upon the Conversation through a real time conversation with a neighbour of mine. You can find the full gist of what I wanted to say at my blog grantseraph11.wordpress.com. But what I would like to point out is the ethical conundrum in trying to "cure" people of conditions which provide at least some benefits to the individual and, I believe, the greater society. I am interested in human uniqueness and the links between certain medical conditions and heightened creativity…

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    1. David Tuck

      Scientist

      In reply to Grant Higham

      You should keep in mind that the goal of the mental health sciences is not to label and stigmatise mental disorders/illnesses, but to improve the quality of life for people who are struggling with them. People are not diagnosed with a disorder or illness until it is bad enough to be impacting significantly on their quality of life, and this is done with the aim of helping those individuals by either treating their condition in order to help them overcome it, or if that cannot be accomplished with…

      Read more