A specialized weight loss diet favored by bodybuilders could be effective in treating schizophrenia, according to research published in the journal Schizophrenia Research.

Researchers at James Cook University in Australia found that a ketogenic diet — high in fat but low in carbohydrates — helped reduce behaviors resembling the chronic brain disorder in mice. They believe this particular diet, which was first designed in the 1920s to treat epilepsy until anti-seizure medications were introduced in the 1940s, can provide alternative energy sources via ketone bodies, or products of fat breakdown. The idea is the brain would use these alternative sources instead of the "abnormally functioning cellular energy pathways in the brains of schizophrenics."

"Most of a person's energy would come from fat. So the diet would consist of butter, cheese, salmon..." researcher Dr. Zolan Sarnyai said in a press release. "Initially it would be used in addition to medication in an in-patient setting where the patient's diet could be controlled."

For the study, Sarnyai and his team fed mice a ketogenic diet for three weeks and measured their psychomotor hyperactivity and behavior, as well as their social withdrawal and memory deficits. They compared these findings to a control group of mice being fed a normal diet, finding mice on the ketogenic diet weighed less and had lower blood glucose levels than mice serving as the control.

Schizophrenia is a chronic mental disorder that affects about 0.5 to 1 percent of the world population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of the disease include hallucinations, delusions, social withdrawal, and unpredictable behavior. Medications used to treat the disabling brain disorder can lead to weight gain, adverse effects on schizophrenic's mobility, movement disorder, and cardiovascular disease. So these findings may be a major step forward in alleviating these side effects for patients.

"It's another advantage that it works against the weight gain, cardiovascular issues and type-two diabetes we see as common side-effects of drugs given to control schizophrenia," Sarnyai added.

Although more studies using other animal models are needed to confirm their findings, researchers explain their results so far are among the first to suggest a ketogenic diet can help normalize pathological behaviors in an animal model of schizophrenia. They suggest the diet "may exert its beneficial influence through the above multiple mechanisms to normalize underlying pathophysiological processes" and has the potential to be "swiftly translated into a novel, safe, and effective management" of the mental disorder in humans.

Source: Sarnyai Z et al. Ketogenic diet reverses behavioral abnormalities in an acute NMDA receptor hypofunction model of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research. 2015.