August 02, 2005

Biological Test for Schizophrenia?

A biological test to determine whether one has schizophrenia or bipolar disorder has been developed and the results look hopeful, though it is still in the research phase (and not ready for people to use in a clinical setting yet.

PhD student Nathan Clunas and associate professor of psychiatry Philip Ward did a pilot study (a test run for a proposed study) that looked at the brain wave patterns of 17 patients with schizophrenia and healthy individuals. They used a electroencephalograph (EEG) "to record specific brain wave forms relating to attention and attention deficits." The brain waves were recorded as the participants listened to pairs of sound and also were asked to complete a simple visual distraction task.

The healthy volunteers all had a distinctive pattern that was very different from what those with schizophrenia had. Those with schizophrenia were all currently taking anti-psychotic medication and most of them were chronic sufferers. The 12 patients with bipolar disorder appeared to have differences from the healthy participants but this has not been validated as of yet.

The authors of the study cautioned that results would have to be replicated with larger patient samples before the possibility of a mainstream "biological schizophrenia test" could be explored. Among other things, further studies should clarify whether these abnormal brain waves are present at the onset of illness (thus making them good candidates for diagnostic purposes), or whether they are a result of chronic schizophrenia symptoms and/or medication treatment. The patients in this pilot-study sample were not in a first-episode stage of illness, and all of them were on medication.

Professor Ward went on to say that there is some evidence that the brain wave patterns observed in the subjects with schizophrenia is not caused by the effects of antipsychotics. The next step is doing a comparison study between patients on medication and those in the early stages of schizophrenia who have not started drug therapy. If the biological test still proved valid then we would have an excellent tool at diagnosing schizophrenia early and without as much of the confusion that can come when it is diagnosed simply through "talk therapy." It may be able to better distinguish between disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, two that are often confused.

EEG or electroencephalograph is something that all major hospitals are equipped to do, meaning that it might not be out of the price limitations of "reality." Both researchers hope that this diagnostic test will eventually be used to "screen people for mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar before symptoms develop" (SMH, 2005).

The source of this article is The Sydney Morning Herald.

This joins previous announcements for a blood test for schizophrenia, as well as breath tests, and IQ tests for schizophrenia that are all in research and development. We hope to see these in clinical settings in the next few years.

You can access the full article at


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