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Schizophrenia treatment turns to yoga, with hope

Schizophrenia treatment turns to yoga, with hope

NIMHANS researchers design a holistic treatment plan combining yoga and medicines that could help to trigger the brain's self-healing mechanisms in brain disorders
activation if neurogenesis
Image by Poornima U S

Many years ago, Amrit Bakshy, a Pune-based businessman, noticed drastic changes in his daughter’s behaviour: she kept to herself, skipped eating, and ignored personal hygiene. She even had a few panic attacks and seizures.

A psychiatrist brushed aside his concerns saying the behaviour would pass. However, when things did not change, Bakshy consulted another psychiatrist, who helped him realise the seriousness of her condition. “We were ignorant. It has been 31 years since she was first diagnosed with schizophrenia,” Bakshy tells Happiest Health.

Schizophrenia is a severe psychiatric condition where the individual experiences hallucinations, delusions, and disconnects from the world around them. The disordered thinking and behaviour drastically affect their daily functioning and expressing emotions. While the exact reason for the condition is unknown, early intervention, lifelong medications and family support help immensely.

Ever since his daughter’s diagnosis, Bakshy has been a great support to her and also helps spread awareness about the disorder through the Schizophrenia Awareness Association.

A scope for self-healing

Schizophrenia is one of the many brain anomalies experts find challenging to treat, primarily because we know little about the brain’s structure and functions. Additionally, the blood-brain barrier restricts most of the drug treatment. Only a few drugs can pass through this barrier efficiently in the right amounts and with minimal side effects. Another reason is the ageing neurons that lose their ability to multiply.

However, scientists are looking for other ways: activating the brain’s self-repair mechanisms via triggering neural stem cells (NSCs). These special cells located in the brain’s hippocampus region have the ability of neurogenesis; that is, they can generate neurons and other brain cells.

However, as one ages, most NSCs enter a quiescent stage: they are alive but do not multiply into mature neurons. Neurologists are actively investigating different ways to trigger neurogenesis in NSCs to treat neuropsychiatric conditions.

The benefit of exercise

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, prevents age-associated disorders, protects against the progression of various neurodegenerative diseases and improves mental health.

Laboratory experiments on mice have shown that exercise, diet and nutrition could trigger NSCs. In addition, exercise impacts hippocampal structure keeping neurons healthy and generating new neurons to integrate into neural circuitry.

Specific postures

Similarly, research has shown yoga has several therapeutic benefits on cognitive functioning and brain health.

With these inputs, researchers from the Department of Integrative Medicine, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, designed a combination therapy for people with neurological and psychiatric conditions. Their strategy merges yoga practices with conventional medicine to treat neuropsychiatric disorders.

The treatment module is designed to suit the individual’s specific symptoms. For example, specific yoga postures to improve motor functions in people with epilepsy or breathing techniques (pranayama) to reduce agitation in people with Parkinson’s and schizophrenia. The physical and breathing exercises are introduced gradually, so the individual is not overwhelmed.

“This integrative approach has shown improvement in people with Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and schizophrenia,” Dr Goutham Reddy, NIMHANS, shares with Happiest Health.

Best of both – the integrated approach

“Initially, the treatment involves the prescribed dosage of medication and introducing the individual to a yoga module depending on the present medical condition of the person,” says  Dr Reddy. Later, the medications and yoga modules are altered based on the person’s response.

Dr Reddy recalls how their integrated approach helped a 27-year-old person with schizophrenia. “When he came to us, he had symptoms of hallucinations, aggression, disinterest in eating, hygiene and poor sleep. So we put him on a treatment plan including yoga and diet with medication,” he says.

Initially, this person’s yoga module started with sun salutation (Surya namaskar), twisted posture (Vakrasana), camel posture (Ushtrasana), cobra posture (Bhujangasana), and quick relaxation techniques.

“It is common for people with schizophrenia to fall into their inner world easily. Surya namaskars help to keep them ‘grounded’ or stabilise their awareness. Also, we avoid long and intense meditation for them,” explains Dr Reddy.

The individual was gradually introduced to pranayamas like Naadi shuddhi and Bhastrika and other asanas like the locust posture (Shalabhasana), the bow posture (Dhanurasana) and the shoulder stand (Sarvangasana).

Vinay Pujari, yoga instructor, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research & Holistic Health Trust, Bengaluru, says the yoga asanas specifically target the spine and the vital organs of the body, like the liver and lower abdomen. “Especially Bhujangasana and Sarvangasana help bring mental stability and balance. Also, pranayama like Bhastrika rushes blood into the brain, helping in any ailments of the spine and the brain,” says Pujari.

Normalising the disruptions

Although the exact mechanism of neurogenesis is yet to be discovered, the researchers observed the changes occurring in the brain before and after the therapy using neuroimaging techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and Near-Infrared Spectroscopy.

“People with psychiatric disorders have irregularities in a neuro-messenger called GABA,  which regulates neuron formation in the brain,” explains Dr Reddy. “These techniques help to detect an increased blood flow into the brain and identify the differences in neuro-messengers, especially GABA, which indicate neuron formation,” he says, adding that they found increased blood flow into the brain post-therapy for the individual.

A happy outcome

Bakshy concurs that a regular yoga practice (available at that time) has helped his daughter and others from the association. “She has gone through various spectrums of schizophrenia and juggled with different dosages and therapies. From experience, I can say that along with medicine, yoga therapy can help reduce the severity of the condition,” says Bakshy.

The integrated therapy has helped many others, Dr Reddy says. “After several yoga sessions, we have observed better motor functions, calmer moods and fewer seizures [than before] in people with different conditions,” he says.

“We have even reduced medicine dosage within a few months of the therapy. However, we never recommend discontinuing the medications altogether,” he cautions.

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