Schizophrenia is a disease of abnormal brain development.
Considerable evidence now indicates that environmental factors have a causative role in schizophrenia.
Elevated incidence of the disease has been linked to a wide range of disturbances in the prenatal environment and to social factors and drug intake during adolescence. Here we examine neurodevelopment of the prefrontal cortex in the first trimester of gestation and during adolescence to gain further insight into the neurodevelopmental processes that may be vulnerable in schizophrenia.
Early embryonic development of the prefrontal cortex is characterized by cell proliferation, including renewal of progenitor cells, generation of early transient cell populations and neurogenesis of subcortical populations. Animal models show that curtailing early gestational cell proliferation produces schizophrenia-like pathology in the prefrontal cortex and mimics key behavioral and cognitive symptoms of the disease. At the other end of the spectrum, elimination of excitatory synapses is the fundamental process occurring during adolescent maturation in the prefrontal cortex. Adverse social situations that elevate stress increase dopamine stimulation of the mesocortical pathway and may lead to exaggerated synaptic pruning during adolescence. In a non-human primate model, dopamine hyperstimulation has been shown to decrease prefrontal pyramidal cell spine density and to be associated with profound cognitive dysfunction.
Development of the prefrontal cortex in its earliest stage in gestation and in its final stage in adolescence represents two critical periods of vulnerability for schizophrenia in which cell proliferation and synaptic elimination, respectively, may be influenced by environmental factors.