Background: Multiple lines of evidence indicate that the prefrontal cortex is a site of dysfunction in schizophrenia. However, the apparent absence of gross structural abnormalities in this area suggests that the pathophysiological characteristics of schizophrenia may involve more subtle disturbances in prefrontal cortical circuitry, such as alterations in synaptic connectivity and transmission. In this study, immunoreactivity for synaptophysin, an integral membrane protein of small synaptic vesicles, was used to assess the integrity of cortical synaptic circuitry in schizophrenia.
Methods: Using immunocytochemical techniques and adjusted optical density measurements, we examined synaptophysin immunoreactivity in prefrontal cortical areas 9 and 46 and in area 17 (the primary visual cortex) from 10 pairs of case subjects with schizophrenia and control subjects. matched on a pairwise basis for age, sex, race, and postmortem interval, and in 5 matched pairs of nonschizophrenic psychiatric case subjects and normal control subjects.
Results: Compared with levels found in matched control subjects, synaptophysin immunoreactivity in areas 46 and 9 was significantly decreased (P < .001 and P < .008, respectively) across all cortical layers in the case subjects with schizophrenia. In contrast, no differences were observed in area 17. In addition, levels of synaptophysin immunoreactivity in areas 46, 9, and 17 did not differ between 5 nonschizophrenic psychiatric case subjects and their matched controls, suggesting that decreased synaptophysin levels in the prefrontal cortex of patients with schizophrenia may be specific to that disorder.
Conclusion: Additional studies are required to determine if the decrease in levels of synaptophysin immunoreactivity is caused by a decrease in the number or size of presynaptic terminals, a decrease in the number of synaptic vesicle per terminal, or a decrease in the expression of synaptophysin. However, all of these potential explanations are consistent with a disturbance in synaptic transmission in the prefrontal cortex of patients with schizophrenia.