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Rethinking schizophrenia: Researchers believe the digestive tract links to the brain disease

Editor's note: This is one of three articles on Upstate's "renegade researchers" -- scientists who are providing new ways of looking at long-standing medical problems, including schizophrenia (detailed below), Kaposi sarcoma and hydrocephalus.


A breakthrough study published in the journal Science Advances provides evidence of a link between schizophrenia and the gut.

Researchers from Upstate, along with colleagues at universities in China, say their findings could transform treatment for schizophrenia, a severe, chronic mental illness that impacts how a person behaves.

Julio Licinio, MD, PhD Julio Licinio, MD, PhD

Julio Licinio, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry, medicine and pharmacology at Upstate, together with a team of international researchers, have been searching for the past five years to show the effect of the gut microbiome on behavior and the brain. Peng Zheng, MD, is the study’s first author. An associate professor at Chongging Medical University in China, Zheng is currently a visiting scholar at Upstate.

The gut microbiome refers to microbes that live in the intestines. While people share some of the same microbiomes, most of the organisms differ from person to person.

As part of the study, Licinio and his team, through genetic sequencing of the gut microbiomes of healthy individuals and people with schizophrenia, found a vast difference in the makeup of the microbiomes. There were far fewer different gut microbiomes in people with schizophrenia.

The next step of the study was to transplant the microbiomes taken from people with schizophrenia into germ-free mice.

“The mice then behaved in a way that is reminiscent of the behavior of people with schizophrenia,” Licinio recalls. “The brains of the animals given microbes from patients with schizophrenia also showed changes in glutamate, a neurotransmitter that is thought to be dysregulated in schizophrenia.”

Mice that received microbiomes from healthy individuals showed no unexpected behavior.

Licinio says the way the microbiome from people with schizophrenia affected the mice behavior suggests that a promise of new treatment of the mental disorder could be on the horizon.

Ma-Li Wong, MD, PhD Ma-Li Wong, MD, PhD

“This would give us a completely new pathway toward treating schizophrenia,” he says. “No treatments that we give today are based on a change of the microbes in the gut. So if you could show that would change behavior in a positive way, we would have a whole new way to approach schizophrenia.”

Ma-Li Wong, MD, PhD, was a co-investigator in the research with Licinio. She’s a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science and neuroscience and physiology at Upstate.

“We understand schizophrenia solely as a brain disease,” she says. “But maybe we need to re-examine this line of thinking and consider that maybe the gut has an important role.”

Upstate Health magazine summer 2019 issue coverThis article appears in the summer 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.