January 05, 2005

Schizophrenia Prediction Possible

A new study from Edinburgh University says that people in high-risk categories for schizophrenia who go on to develop the disease show subtle early warning signs that distinguish them from others in their group.

The study, which began in 1994, tracked 163 young adults identified as "at-risk" for schizophrenia (based on the fact that each subject had two relatives diagnosed with schizophrenia). According to the data, those in this group who actually developed schizophrenia had more pre-diagnosis anxiety, social withdrawal, and "schizotypal" thoughts than those who remained well. Such eary symptoms were subtle in nature, tending not to be debilitating to daily life. However, researchers say that even these small indicators can be identified using behavioural tests.

Another important finding of the study is that many more people are genetically at-risk for schizophrenia than the actual number who will eventually develop the illness. Out of the 163 at-risk subjects (identified based on their genetic susceptibility), only 20 eventually developed schizophrenia.

Based on the early symptoms of those who actually develop schizophrenia, the scientists believe that the basis of schizophrenia may lie in problems with the temporal lobe.

Given that such problems may develop slowly over several years before they become debilitating, this strongly supports the benefits of early screening, identification, and treatment of those who are at genetic and/or environmental risk for developing schizophrenia.

Says Paul Correy of the U.K. mental illness charity Rethink: "It will be some time before studies of this kind lead to improvements in treatment, but we can already see the importance of stepping up government investment in early intervention services that aim to make contact with people in the first stages of illness. Today, there is an average waiting time between the first signs of illness and treatment of 18 months. This study reinforces our belief that this is totally unacceptable."

Marjorie Wallace of the mental health organization SANE agrees, pointing out that many families notice odd behavioural and/or developmental signs in their children well before full-blown symptoms appear. These observations can prove extremely valuable to physicians, especially if the child has a family history of psychiatric disorders.

"The more we understand about what causes an illness like schizophrenia and the earlier we are able to identify those at risk the better we will be able to treat it before long term damage is done," she says.

The full study appears in the British Journal of Psychiatry, (2005) 186: 18-25.

Read the full article online: "Schizophrenia Prediction Possible." BBC News (http://news.bbc.co.uk), Jan 5 2005.

Read about early diagnosis and prevention techniques currently in use or in development. (http://www.schizophrenia.com/diag.html#early)


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