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Neural Correlates

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Neural Correlates

What does it mean to say that there is a neural correlation in schizophrenia? What are the biological causes of schizophrenia? We will look at a causal association between neurophysical abnormalities and schizophrenia as part of our discussion. With evaluations, we will additionally consider the strength and limitations of the neurological correlate argument. But first, let us define neural correlates.

Neural correlates are instances where brain structure differences correlate with certain psychological disorders or symptoms. You may have encountered the word ‘correlate’ in your research methods lessons it simply means that there is a reciprocal relationship.

It is important to note that correlation does not equal causation!

We can find an example of neural correlates in people suffering from anxiety disorders. The volume of grey matter in areas such as the amygdala (which helps process frightening or threatening stimuli) correlates with the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder (Spampinato et al., 2009).

Neural correlates in schizophrenia

A 2002 study by E. Fuller Torrey examined neurological differences in schizophrenic patients who were not prescribed antipsychotic medications than healthy controls. For this purpose, he reviewed 65 studies on the topic.

Torrey found ‘significant abnormalities’ in the brains of people with schizophrenia compared to people without schizophrenia in these studies. He concluded that there were many, interconnected neurophysical differences in the brains of schizophrenic patients that increased the likelihood of developing the disorder. These included the basal ganglia, medial temporal lobe, prefrontal cortex and thalamus.

Because these studies were conducted on participants who had never received antipsychotic medication, Torrey also concluded that the neurophysical abnormalities in these participants were inherently part of the disorder and not a side effect of treatment.

Neural correlates: Ventricles

Torrey also found that in schizophrenia patients, the ventricles in the brain (fluid-filled cavities in the brain that help supply the brain with vital nutrients and eliminate toxins) are 15% larger, meaning that their brains weigh less than those of neurotypical people. A link has been found between enlarged ventricles in schizophrenia and loss of grey matter in some brain areas. Grey matter is involved in the control of movements, memories, and emotions. It plays a vital role in normal daily functioning.

Neural Correlates Torrey brain abnormalities schizophrenia StudySmarterTorrey (2002) found 'significant abnormalities’ in the brains of people with schizophrenia, Flaticon

Supporting evidence for neural correlates

There is substantial evidence that brain structure or functioning abnormalities cause schizophrenia.

One study, in particular, bears witness to this. Let’s have a look.

Suddath et al. (1990)

This 1990 twin study found that in 15 pairs of twins, one of whom was schizophrenic and the other non-schizophrenic, 12 of them had significant differences in ventricular size on MRI scans. These differences were not present in the seven control twin pairs studied.

This study suggests that there are neural correlates for schizophrenia. Since this is a twin study, it is reasonable to assume that these neurophysical differences cause schizophrenia or that schizophrenia causes them. It is unlikely due to individual biological differences or external factors since twins are genetically identical and usually grow up in a similar environment.

Reliability is another strength of this study. The method used was MRI brain imaging, which is highly scientific due to its objective and controlled study method. This makes it more likely to obtain similar results if the study were repeated.

Limitations of neural correlates

Is our biology to blame for our actions? Shouldn’t we also consider environmental factors? After all, do neurological differences cause schizophrenia or vice versa? Let us add the opposite stance to our evaluation and find the answers ourselves.

Biological determinism

Neural correlates as an explanation for schizophrenia is a biologically deterministic theory, i.e., it supports the notion that our thoughts and behaviours are dictated purely by biological factors rather than our own free will.

Biological determinism can negatively impact attempts to treat harmful behaviours and mental disorders.

Suppose someone is undergoing family therapy for schizophrenia, but believes that their neurology dictates their condition. In that case, they may not even try the treatment that could have helped them.

Moreover, biological determinism has negative implications for our justice system. Suppose we conclude that behaviour is biologically determined and does not require human decision making. In that case, it will become increasingly difficult to justify punishment for severe crimes because the offender might cite biologically deterministic ideas as an excuse.

Correlation and causation

As mentioned earlier, we cannot yet determine whether schizophrenia causes these neurological differences or the other way around. This makes it challenging to apply this theory to treating schizophrenic symptoms.

Although there is ample scientific evidence to suggest that these neurological differences likely contribute to schizophrenia, this theory is limited because it cannot explain why these differences exist. Therefore, more research needs to be done to investigate this further.

Environmental factors

Another limitation is that this theory does not consider environmental factors that may contribute to the development of schizophrenia. This means that a treatment developed based on this theory may not work because environmental factors are not considered and could become a confounding variable (an external factor that affects an outcome).For example, a 2013 study by Vilain et al. found that some environmental factors influence the occurrence of schizophrenia. This shows that we cannot disregard these factors. Thus, the fact that this theory does not acknowledge them is a limitation.

Neural Correlates Schizophrenia environmental factors StudySmarterIs schizophrenia a product of mere biological factors, or should we consider the environment too?, KG - StudySmarter Originals (Images from Canva and Pixabay)

Applications of neural correlates

Since neural correlates do not prove causality, it is challenging to perform treatments based on this theory. All this theory does at this point is help us understand the neural differences between schizophrenic and neurotypical people. Still, it does not provide us with information we can use practically.

Suppose further research were to be done to investigate whether there are causal links between brain structure and schizophrenia. In that case, it could help us develop more medical treatments for the disease, but this is not currently possible.

Neural Correlates - Key takeaways

  • We speak of neural correlates when structural differences in the brain are associated with specific mental diseases or conditions.
  • Torrey (2002) found significant differences between the brains of schizophrenic people and neurotypical people.
  • One such difference is that schizophrenic people tend to have larger ventricles in their brains.
  • Another twin study by Suddath et al. (1990) found remarkably similar results (larger ventricles in people with schizophrenia).
  • This theory is highly deterministic and does not show a causal relationship between neurophysical differences and schizophrenia.

Frequently Asked Questions about Neural Correlates

Neural correlates are instances where brain structure differences correlate with psychological disorders or symptoms. People with schizophrenia are more likely to have enlarged ventricles within their brains. This correlation is an example of neural correlates. 

Neural correlates describe the concept that specific structural differences within the brain can cause certain symptoms or disorders.

Final Neural Correlates Quiz

Question

What are neural correlates?

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Answer

Neural correlates are instances where brain structure differences correlate with some psychological disorders or symptoms.

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Question

In which brain areas are abnormalities linked to schizophrenia?

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Answer

The ventricles, basal ganglia, medial temporal lobe, prefrontal cortex, and thalamus.

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What is a correlation?

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Answer

 A relationship or link between two factors.

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 Does correlation equal causation?


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Answer

No.

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 Who conducted a meta-analysis of 65 studies into neural correlates related to schizophrenia?

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Answer

E. Fuller Torrey.

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What were the results of the 2002 study into neural correlates by E. Fuller Torrey?

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Answer

Torrey found links between structural abnormalities in multiple brain areas and the development of schizophrenia. One such link is the relationship between the size of ventricles and the onset of schizophrenia.

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 How does ventricle size link to schizophrenia?

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Answer

 Larger ventricles usually correlate with the development of schizophrenia.

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What did Suddath et al. (1990) find in their study?

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Answer

In monozygotic twins, the twin with schizophrenia was more likely to have larger ventricles than their neurotypical twin. This finding supports the theory of neural correlates.

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Why is this theory biologically deterministic?


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Answer

Because the theory states that if you have these specific structural abnormalities in your brain, you will develop schizophrenia. This stance leaves no room for free will or individual differences, making it deterministic.

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Why is determinism a limitation of this theory?

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Answer

Determinism can negatively impact attempts to treat harmful behaviours and mental disorders. Suppose someone is undergoing family therapy for schizophrenia but believes that their neurology dictates their condition. In that case, they may not even try the treatment that could have helped them.

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Question

 How does Vilain et al.'s 2013 study refute neural correlates as an explanation for schizophrenia?

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Answer

The 2013 study by Vilain et al. found that some environmental factors influence the onset of schizophrenia. This is a limitation of neural correlates because the latter does not consider these factors.

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Why is it hard to produce treatments for schizophrenia from this theory?

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Answer

No proven causal link between neurophysical differences and schizophrenia exists, making the concepts of this approach difficult to apply.

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What method did Torrey (2002) use in the meta-analysis?

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Answer

MRI brain scans.

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 Why are MRI scans reliable?

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Because they are objective and highly controlled.

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Why is the use of a twin study by Saddath et al. a strength of this explanation?

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Answer

Because, in twin studies, it is reasonable to assume that schizophrenia is either caused by or is the cause of these neurophysical differences. It is unlikely to be due to biological differences or external factors (as twins are genetically identical and typically raised in similar environments).

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