MRI Scans Show the Brain Can ‘Rust’


New research suggests that a damaging chemical imbalance in the brain — one that results in a process that scientists compare to rusting metal — may be partially to blame for schizophrenia.

The research, presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s yearly meeting, found that patients with schizophrenia have higher levels of “oxidative stress” than healthy brains or even people with bipolar disorder.

An example of a brain MRI. Credit: Nevit Dilmen, 20 Brain MRI T1W R FLAIR G T2W TSE B, CC BY-SA 3.0
An example of a brain MRI. Credit: Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0

The neuroscientists used an MRI scan to exam schizophrenic patients’ brains and the chemical imbalance.

“Intensive energy demands on brain cells leads to accumulation of highly reactive oxygen species, such as free radicals and hydrogen peroxide,” according to the study’s lead investigator, Dr. Fei Du, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

People who struggle with schizophrenia have excessive oxidation, which is a similar type of chemical reaction to the process that turns metal into rust. It is widely believed that this chemical imbalance causes inflammation and cellular damage However, until now, measuring this process in the human brain was challenging.

Dr. Du and his colleagues at McLean Hospital examined oxidative stress in people with schizophrenia by using MRI scanners to measure brain concentrations of two molecules — NAD+ and NADH — and then gave a readout of how well the brain was able to process the excess oxidants.

Out of the 21 patients tested, Dr. Du found a 53 percent increase in NADH compared to healthy people of similar ages. He also saw an increase of NADH in patients newly diagnosed with schizophrenia, which suggests that the oxidation unbalance is present at early stages of the illness.

Dr. Du believes that his findings not only give new insight into the biology of schizophrenia, but also could potentially lead to new tests and treatments for the illness.

“We hope this work will lead to new strategies to protect the brain from oxidative stress and improve brain function in schizophrenia,” Dr. Du said in a press release.

Danielle Tarasiuk

Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.