Do Unremitted Psychotic Symptoms Have an Effect on the Brain? A 2-Year Follow-up Imaging Study in First-Episode Psychosis

Schizophr Bull Open. 2020 Jan;1(1):sgaa039. doi: 10.1093/schizbullopen/sgaa039. Epub 2020 Aug 24.


Background: To examine whether the duration of unremitted psychotic symptoms after the onset of a first episode of psychosis (FEP) is associated with cortical thickness and hippocampal volume, as well as structural covariance of these measures.

Method: Longitudinal MRI scans were obtained for 80 FEP patients shortly after entry to FEP clinic (baseline), and then 12 months and 24 months later. The proportion of time patients experienced unremitted positive symptoms for 2 interscan intervals (baseline to 12 mo, 12 mo to 24 mo) was calculated. Changes in cortical thickness and hippocampal volumes were calculated for each interscan interval and associated with duration of unremitted psychotic symptoms. Significant regions were then used in seed-based structural covariance analyses to examine the effect of unremitted psychotic symptoms on brain structural organization. Importantly, analyses controlled for antipsychotic medication.

Results: Cortical thinning within the left medial/orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex and superior temporal gyrus were significantly associated with the duration of unremitted psychotic symptoms during the first interscan interval (ie, baseline to 12 mo). Further, changes in cortical thickness within the left medial/orbitofrontal cortex positively covaried with changes in thickness in the left dorsal and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex during this period. No associations were observed during the second interscan interval, nor with hippocampal volumes.

Conclusions: These results demonstrate that cortical thickness change can be observed shortly after an FEP, and these changes are proportionally related to the percentage of time spent with unremitted psychotic symptoms. Altered structural covariance in the prefrontal cortex suggests that unremitted psychotic symptoms may underlie reorganization in higher-order cortical regions.

Keywords: cortical thickness; hippocampus; prefrontal cortex; relapse; structural covariance.