Background: The thickness of the cortical mantle is a sensitive measure for identifying alterations in cortical structure. We aimed to explore whether first episode schizophrenia patients already show a significant cortical thinning and whether cortical thickness anomalies may significantly influence clinical and cognitive features.
Method: We investigated regional changes in cortical thickness in a large and heterogeneous sample of schizophrenia spectrum patients (n=142) at their first break of the illness and healthy controls (n=83). Magnetic resonance imaging brain scans (1.5 T) were obtained and images were analyzed by using brains2. The contribution of sociodemographic, cognitive and clinical characterictics was investigated.
Results: Patients showed a significant total cortical thinning (F=17.55, d=-0.62, p<0.001) and there was a diffuse pattern of reduced thickness (encompassing frontal, temporal and parietal cortices) (all p's<0.001, d's>0.53). No significant group×gender interactions were observed (all p's>0.15). There were no significant associations between the clinical and pre-morbid variables and cortical thickness measurements (all r's<0.12). A weak significant negative correlation between attention and total (r=-0.24, p=0.021) and parietal cortical thickness (r=-0.27, p=0.009) was found in patients (thicker cortex was associated with lower attention). Our data revealed a similar pattern of cortical thickness changes related to age in patients and controls.
Conclusions: Cortical thinning is independent of gender, age, age of onset and duration of the illness and does not seem to significantly influence clinical and functional symptomatology. These findings support a primary neurodevelopment disorder affecting the normal cerebral cortex development in schizophrenia.