California scientists have identified a set of laboratory-based biomarkers that can be used to flag brain-based abnormalities in schizophrenia and help doctors diagnose the condition earlier and tailor effective treatments to patients.
The finding, reported in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, could be a boon to clinicians who sometimes struggle to recognize and treat the complex and confounding mental disorder.
"A major problem in psychiatry is that there are currently no laboratory tests that aid in diagnosis, guide treatment decisions or help predict treatment response or outcomes," said Gregory A. Light, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine who helped conduct the study. "Diagnoses are currently based on a clinician's ability to make inferences about patients' inner experiences."
Diagnosing and treating schizophrenia can be challenging, Light noted. The disorder, which strikes 1 percent of the U.S. population (3 million people), involves a breakdown of normal thought processes and erratic, sometimes dangerous behaviors. Although it’s not known what causes of schizophrenia, there is a clear genetic component
For the new study, Light and colleagues investigated whether several key biomarkers could provide clinicians with accurate indicators of the condition, even when symptoms are not apparent. The markers ranged from tests of attention and memory to physiological assessments of brain responses to simple sounds using scalp sensors.
The researchers measured the biomarkers in 550 schizophrenia patients and found most were significantly abnormal in those with the condition.
Light said the team will now try to determine how the biomarkers can be used to predict patients’ responses to different kinds of drugs or treatments.
"We believe this paper is an important step towards validating laboratory-based biomarkers for use in future genomic and clinical treatment studies of schizophrenia," Light said.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.