Gender Differences, Gamma Phase Synchrony and Schizophrenia
By Shameran Slewa-Younan, Evian Gordon, Ph.D., and Leanne Williams, Ph.D.
April 24, 2006
Ms. Slewa-Younan is a research fellow of the New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry. She is currently in the final year of a Ph.D. program, in which she is looking at gender differences in schizophrenia as reflected in synchronous gamma (40 Hz) activity.
Dr. Gordon is director of The Brain Dynamics Centre at Westmead Hospital and senior lecturer in the department of psychological medicine at the University of Sydney. He has recently edited a book entitled Integrative Neuroscience: Bringing Together Biological, Psychological and Clinical Models of the Human Brain (Harwood Academic Publications, 2000).
Dr. Williams is head of the cognitive neuroscience unit of The Brain Dynamics Centre at Westmead Hospital and is senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Sydney. Her primary areas of research are novelty and emotion processing and the applications to disorders such as schizophrenia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Exploring the Differences
Given that females with schizophrenia appear to have a consistently less severe course of illness and fewer structural brain abnormalities than males, we proposed that the gender differences were related to a higher level of interhemispheric connectivity in females. Furthermore, we felt that this optimal interhemispheric connectivity would best be elicited dynamically through an electrophysiological measure. Consequently, our group is the first to explore the possibility that sex differences in schizophrenia are mediated by differences in integrative network activity, reflected in a synchronous phase of high frequency (40 Hz) gamma activity. Recently, investigations have proposed that gamma activity may be a mechanism involved in the binding problem. This refers to the manner in which the brain is able to integrate or bind together the diverse neuronal activities relating to a single stimulus amongst the vast array of parallel processing occurring at any given time (Singer and Gray, 1995). As a mechanism for integrative processing, it could be expected that gamma activity is a useful index of interhemispheric connectivity that will further elucidate observations of gender differences in schizophrenia.
Using an auditory oddball paradigm (40 target tones and 250 background tones), we sought to specifically examine late gamma induced response to target stimuli in 40 patients with schizophrenia and 40 age- and sex-matched controls (25 males and 15 females). Narrow-band gamma activity (37 Hz to 41 Hz) was examined, as this encompasses the key frequency of 40 Hz and was also the specific frequency bin that was shown to contain the cognitively induced gamma response in our previous study (Haig et al., 2000). Data acquisition and analysis were performed in accordance with protocols previously published in Haig et al. (2000).
We found that, as a group, patients with schizophrenia had significantly reduced gamma phase synchrony, both at the anterior region (F(1,78)=4.29, p<0.042) and in the left hemisphere (F(1,78)=4.30, p<0.045). This finding is in line with numerous investigations that have indicated abnormalities in the frontal region and left hemisphere (Gruzelier, 1996). While no significant differences were found between males and females in the control group, there were significant differences between the genders in the schizophrenia group. Specifically, female patients were found to have significantly reduced global gamma phase synchrony when compared tomale patients (F(1,38)=8.80, p<0.005). Consideration of topography showedthat the global reduction was producedby significantly reduced gamma phase synchrony in the frontal region(F(1,38)=6.41, p<0.016) and left hemisphere (F(1,38)=8.57, p<0.006). The Figure displays the between- and within-group differences in late gamma phase synchrony for the left hemisphere.
Our finding of reduced gamma phase synchrony in the schizophrenia group in comparison to the controls is consistent with previous research that has reported the impaired ability to integrate spatially diffuse cerebral activities (Peled, 1999). Although a gender difference in the patient group was also found, this difference was not in the hypothesized direction. To date, there is no published literature on gender differences in synchronous 40 Hz gamma activity within the population with schizophrenia to clarify this outcome. Future studies may explore this finding by looking at gender differences in synchronous 40 Hz gamma activity in response to background stimuli (irrelevant tones) and the efficacy theory.
In summary, our investigation has demonstrated that gender differences which have been found in schizophrenia are reflected in a physiological index of information processing. The primary impact of this information for mental health care professionals is to improve prognosis through more effective treatment strategies. Consequently, we need to go further than solely examining gender differences in clinical aspects or brain structures of patients with schizophrenia. It is at the functional level that clinicians have the potential to direct point of treatment. Future investigations will need to look at how and why male and female patients differ functionally and how to modify treatment plans accordingly. Clearly, if differences were found at this level, then implications for treatment would be very far-reaching. In the future, a patient's integrative ability could be a guide to the type and intensity of treatment required. In this context, gender in schizophrenia really does matter.
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