Background: Up-regulation of gamma-aminobutyric acidA (GABAA) receptors and decreased GABA uptake in the cerebral cortex of schizophrenics suggest altered GABAergic transmission, which could be caused by primary disturbance of GABA synapses or by decreased production of the transmitter. Decreased production could be due to a shutdown in GABA production or to loss of GABA neurons caused by cell death or their failure to migrate to the cortex during brain development.
Methods: To discriminate between these possibilities, we quantified levels of messenger RNA (mRNA) for the 67-kd isoform of glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), the key enzyme in GABA synthesis, and the number and laminar distribution of GAD mRNA--expressing neurons in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) of schizophrenics and matched controls, using in situ hybridization-histochemistry, densitometry, and cell-counting methods. These data were compared with the total number of neurons, the number of small, round or ovoid neurons 8 to 15 microns in diameter, and overall frontal lobe volume. As a control, mRNA levels for type II calcium-calmodulin-dependent protein kinase (CamIIK) were quantified.
Results: Schizophrenics showed a pronounced decrease in GAD mRNA levels in neurons of layer I (40%) and layer II (48%) and an overall 30% decrease in layers III to VI. There were also strong overall reductions in GAD mRNA levels. The CamIIK mRNA levels showed no significant differences between samples. No differences were found in the total number of neurons nor in small, round or ovoid neurons, which should include a majority of the GABA cells. Prefrontal gray and white matter volume did not differ significantly between controls and schizophrenics.
Conclusions: The prefrontal cortex of schizophrenics shows reduced expression for GAD in the absence of significant cell loss. This may be brought about by an activity-dependent down-regulation associated with the functional hypoactivity of the DLPFC. The lack of significant alterations in cell numbers in the DLPFC and frontal lobe volume in schizophrenics also implies that overall cortical neuronal migration had not been compromised in development. Previous reports of altered neuronal distribution in the subcortical white matter of schizophrenic brains in comparison with that of controls may indicate disturbances of migration or programmed cell death in the cortical subplate, leading to altered connection formation in the overlying cortex of schizophrenics and activity-dependent down-regulation of neurotransmitter-related gene expression.