Scientists have identified a potential window for treating neuropsychiatric disorders caused by dopamine dysfunction.

The latest study by researchers from the University of Rochester has found that adolescence is the best time to treat conditions such as schizophrenia and autism, both characterized by dysfunctioning of the dopamine system.

Autistic individuals have low levels of dopamine. Studies show this could reduce their motivation to pursue social interactions as their brains register these activities as not rewarding.

In schizophrenic individuals, dopamine levels can either be too high or too low. Abnormal increase in dopamine activity in certain parts of the brain causes positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations or delusions. Positive symptoms refer to changes in behaviors or thoughts after an individual develops schizophrenia.

When dopamine activity is too low in certain parts of the brain, schizophrenic patients can show negative symptoms and cognitive symptoms. Negative symptoms are marked by the absence of normal behavior, while cognitive symptoms include issues with focusing and attention.

In the latest study, researchers stimulated the underperforming neuron cells that provide dopamine to the frontal cortex of the brain in mice. They found that the activation helps in strengthening the circuit essential for higher cognitive processing and decision-making.

In a previous study, the team identified the specific arm of the dopamine system was more flexible in the adolescent brain than in adults. The latest study suggests this window is an opportunity for therapeutic intervention.

"Brain development is a lengthy process, and many neuronal systems have critical windows – key times when brain areas are malleable and undergoing final maturation steps. By identifying these windows, we can target interventions to these time periods and possibly change the course of a disease by rescuing the structural and behavioral deficits caused by these disorders," said Rianne Stowell, co-first author of the study.

Researchers believe the discovery will take them a step closer to finding a possible target for treating neuropsychiatric disorders.

"These findings suggest that increasing the activity of the adolescent dopaminergic circuitry can rescue existing deficits in the circuit and that this effect can be long-lasting as these changes persist into adulthood. If we can target the right windows in development and understand the signals at play, we can develop treatments that change the course of these brain disorders," Stowell added.

Adolescence is the best time to treat conditions such as schizophrenia and autism, a study has found. Photo Courtesy of Pexels