Importance: Between-individual variability in brain structure is determined by gene-environment interactions, possibly reflecting differential sensitivity to environmental and genetic perturbations. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have revealed thinner cortices and smaller subcortical volumes in patients with schizophrenia. However, group-level comparisons may mask considerable within-group heterogeneity, which has largely remained unnoticed in the literature.
Objectives: To compare brain structural variability between individuals with schizophrenia and healthy controls and to test whether respective variability reflects the polygenic risk score (PRS) for schizophrenia in an independent sample of healthy controls.
Design, setting, and participants: This case-control and polygenic risk analysis compared MRI-derived cortical thickness and subcortical volumes between healthy controls and patients with schizophrenia across 16 cohorts and tested for associations between PRS and MRI features in a control cohort from the UK Biobank. Data were collected from October 27, 2004, through April 12, 2018, and analyzed from December 3, 2017, through August 1, 2018.
Main outcomes and measures: Mean and dispersion parameters were estimated using double generalized linear models. Vertex-wise analysis was used to assess cortical thickness, and regions-of-interest analyses were used to assess total cortical volume, total surface area, and white matter, subcortical, and hippocampal subfield volumes. Follow-up analyses included within-sample analysis, test of robustness of the PRS threshold, population covariates, outlier removal, and control for image quality.
Results: A comparison of 1151 patients with schizophrenia (mean [SD] age, 33.8 [10.6] years; 68.6% male [n = 790] and 31.4% female [n = 361]) with 2010 healthy controls (mean [SD] age, 32.6 [10.4] years; 56.0% male [n = 1126] and 44.0% female [n = 884]) revealed higher heterogeneity in schizophrenia for cortical thickness and area (t = 3.34), cortical (t = 3.24) and ventricle (t range, 3.15-5.78) volumes, and hippocampal subfields (t range, 2.32-3.55). In the UK Biobank sample of 12 490 participants (mean [SD] age, 55.9 [7.5] years; 48.2% male [n = 6025] and 51.8% female [n = 6465]), higher PRS was associated with thinner frontal and temporal cortices and smaller left CA2/3 (t = -3.00) but was not significantly associated with dispersion.
Conclusions and relevance: This study suggests that schizophrenia is associated with substantial brain structural heterogeneity beyond the mean differences. These findings may reflect higher sensitivity to environmental and genetic perturbations in patients, supporting the heterogeneous nature of schizophrenia. A higher PRS was associated with thinner frontotemporal cortices and smaller hippocampal subfield volume, but not heterogeneity. This finding suggests that brain variability in schizophrenia results from interactions between environmental and genetic factors that are not captured by the PRS. Factors contributing to heterogeneity in frontotemporal cortices and hippocampus are key to furthering our understanding of how genetic and environmental factors shape brain biology in schizophrenia.