YOUR HEALTH: Avoiding powerful drugs to help those with severe mental illnesses

Treating mental illness often involves harsh drugs, could stem cell research offer can alternative?

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Schizophrenia is a difficult mental disorder that causes a person to lose touch with reality.

Because the symptoms can be so severe, it's treated with strong drugs.  But they have side effects.

So, a Texas scientist has unveiled a different approach that may be a game changer.

"When people hear schizophrenia or psychosis, they immediately go to what they see in movies, the 'crazy person' and that's not what schizophrenia is," explained Daniel Lodge, an associate professor at UT Health San Antonio.

Scientists believe schizophrenia starts in utero, but the symptoms, such as hallucinations, paranoia and social withdrawal, don't appear until a person is in their teens.

"Like I was hearing voices," remembered Fonda White.   "I was seeing things, honestly I thought everybody heard voices."

He saw dark, shadowy figures, scary to a small child.   In many ways, it was like a horror movie.

Now he's a peer specialist taking meds.

"The problem with these drugs is that they have side effects," said Lodge.

That includes weight gain, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, and constipation.

It's why researchers are studying stem cells in the brain that target the root cause.

Lodge experimented with rodents and discovered that inserting stem cells into the brains of the control group improved their cognitive function.   And at the end of a long research road, researchers say stem cell treatments could have a tremendous effect on people such as Fonda with better quality of life.

"This is very powerful because not only is it building their ability to become independent, but also to achieve their dreams, the things they want to do in life," according to licensed counselor Marina Robertson.

NEW RESEARCH:  Lodge's study, published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, found new ideas on how to overcome schizophrenia using stem cells.  Lodge says schizophrenia patients show dysregulated activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, two regions known to regulate dopamine neuron activity.  These deficits in hippocampal and prefrontal cortical function are thought to result, in part, from reductions in inhibitory interneuron function in these brain regions. Therefore, it has been hypothesized that restoring interneuron function in the hippocampus and/or prefrontal cortex may be an effective treatment strategy for schizophrenia.

"If anybody's going through it or you feel like somebody's having symptoms or something like that, definitely help them," said Fonda.

"Don't lose hope on it."

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.