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BACKGROUND: Schizophrenia is associated with structural brain abnormalities that may be present before disease onset. It remains unclear whether these represent general vulnerability indicators or are associated with the clinical state itself.
METHODS: To investigate this, structural brain scans were acquired at two time points (mean scan interval 1.87 years) in a cohort of individuals at high familial risk of schizophrenia ( n = 142) and control subjects ( n = 36). Cortical reconstructions were generated using FreeSurfer. The high-risk cohort was subdivided into individuals that remained well during the study, individuals that had transient psychotic symptoms, and individuals that subsequently became ill. Baseline measures and longitudinal change in global estimates of thickness and surface area and lobar values were compared, focusing on overall differences between high-risk individuals and control subjects and then on group differences within the high-risk cohort.
RESULTS: Longitudinally, control subjects showed a significantly greater reduction in cortical surface area compared with the high-risk group. Within the high-risk group, differences in surface area at baseline predicted clinical course, with individuals that subsequently became ill having significantly larger surface area than individuals that remained well during the study. For thickness, longitudinal reductions were most prominent in the frontal, cingulate, and occipital lobes in all high-risk individuals compared with control subjects.
CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that larger surface areas at baseline may be associated with mechanisms that go above and beyond a general familial disposition. A relative preservation over time of surface area, coupled with a thinning of the cortex compared with control subjects, may serve as vulnerability markers of schizophrenia.
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