Vulnerability to mental disorders begins before birth

In a recent study published in the scientific journal biological psychiatry, Tomas Paus, researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center and professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Montreal, and doctoral student Yash Patel demonstrate that the fetal brain carries the germs of mental health of the individual.

This work was carried out in collaboration with the ENIGMA Consortium and dozens of scientists around the world.

The morphology of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain commonly called “grey matter”, differs according to psychiatric disorders, but the neurobiological factors at the origin of this modification (deviations of cortical areas) during growth remain for the most part undetermined.

To better understand the singular growth of the cerebral cortex in people with mental disorders, as well as the influence of external risk factors, the research team analyzed imaging data from 27,359 people.

The influence of perinatal risk factors

Dr. Tomas Paus, researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center and professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the Faculty of Medicine of the Université de Montréal

Credit: CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center

Using magnetic resonance imaging and reconstruction software, the team studied and compared the surface area of ​​different cortical areas in the brains of people with mental health disorders with those of control subjects. The comparison groups were formed according to the diagnosis of the individuals (ex.: schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, etc.).

Marked differences have been reported in the configuration of the surface of the association cortex (responsible for the complex operations of information processing) in people with, among others, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia and in children with psychological problems.

Using gene expression data from existing databases, Tomas Paus’ team was able to link the characteristics of these differences on the surface of the association cortex to those of the cellular events that underlie early development. of the brain. She also discovered the convergence between these developmental processes and genes associated with perinatal risk factors, such as low birth weight, lack of oxygen supply, maternal hypertension and prematurity.

“The cortical surface of the adult brain provides a window into the events that shape the cerebral cortex and that precede a wide range of mental illnesses. The comprehensive understanding of how perinatal risks can interfere with different cellular and molecular mechanisms will ultimately allow new avenues of treatment to be explored,” says Dr.r Pause.

About the study

The article “Virtual ontogeny of cortical growth preceding mental illness”, by the team of Tomas Paus and Yash Patel, was published on March 4, 2022 in Biological psychiatry.

About the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center

The CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center is a leading institution in mother-child research affiliated with the University of Montreal. Focused on the discovery of innovative means of prevention, less intrusive and faster treatments and promising avenues of personalized medicine, it brings together more than 200 researchers, including more than 90 clinical researchers, as well as 500 graduate and postdoctoral students. The center is an integral part of the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Centre, the largest mother-child center in Canada.

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