Bodybuilders take on a very specialised type of diet to produce extra muscle mass and strength without ballooning in weight, and now researchers in Australia have found an interesting alternative use for this very specific eating regime: treating people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia

As well as being favoured by bodybuilders, the so-called ketogenic diet - essentially, one that's high on fat but low on carbohydrates - has been used for decades to manage epilepsy in children. It basically forces the body to burn ketone bodies (the products of fat breakdown) for fuel, rather than carbohydrates. Researchers from James Cook University (JCU) worked with mice that were fed with a ketogenic diet to see how this would affect behaviours linked to schizophrenia.

They found that the mice sustained by a ketogenic diet exhibited fewer behaviours resembling schizophrenia than those eating a normal diet, with behaviours including hyperactivity, social withdrawal, and memory deficits cropping up less frequently.

Lead researcher Zoltan Sarnyai and his colleagues hypoethesise that this same process of providing an alternative energy source for the body could be circumventing pathways in the brain - in particular, the abnormally functioning cellular energy pathways that are suspected to cause the mental health problems that characterise schizophrenia, including hallucinations, delusions, and muddled thoughts.

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

If the discovery can be applied to an effective treatment for schizophrenia in humans, there might be additional benefits along the way too: lower body weight and lower blood glucose levels. Weight gain and cardiovascular issues associated with high glucose levels in the blood are side effects usually linked to traditional treatments of schizophrenia - something the new approach could cut out.

Schizophrenia, which affects nearly 1 percent of the world's population, has no known cure. Medications used to manage it can have a variety of unwanted side effects, including movement disorders and the weight problems mentioned above, which is why a new strategy for treatment is potentially so exciting.

The JCU researchers say they will now test their findings against schizophrenic behaviour in other animals before exploring the possibility of a clinical trial with people. Their work has been published in the journal Schizophrenia Research.

James Cook University is a sponsor of ScienceAlert. Find out more about their research.