Despite the devastating effects of schizophrenia, it is often difficult to diagnose early.
As with all mental disorders and many other diseases, mental health professionals rely on a set of diagnostic criteria in which to diagnose schizophrenia. The criteria list symptoms and is usually based upon self-report or the report of family members. Sometimes when further information is needed, additional psychological testing may aid in an accurate diagnosis.
Provocative new pilot research suggests collecting tissue from the nose through a biopsy — a surgical incision that removes physical material for analysis — may provide another set of diagnostic capabilities.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University and Johns Hopkins Hospital believe this method to collect and sequence neurons from the nose may permit earlier detection of the disease, giving rise to helping people who are at risk for developing schizophrenia earlier access to treatment.
The finding is reported in the journal Neurobiology of Disease.
Investigators say that until now, biomarkers for schizophrenia had only been found in the neuron cells of the brain, which can’t be collected before death.
By that point it’s obviously too late to do the patient any good, said researcher Noam Shomron, Ph.D. Instead, psychiatrists depend on psychological evaluations for diagnosis, including interviews with the patient and reports by family and friends.
To help improve earlier diagnosis, the researchers turned to the olfactory system, which includes neurons located on the upper part of the inner nose.
Investigators at Johns Hopkins University collected samples of olfactory neurons from patients diagnosed with schizophrenia and a control group of non-affected individuals, then sent them to Shomron’s TAU lab. Shomron and his fellow researchers applied a high-throughput technology to these samples, studying the microRNA of the olfactory neurons.
Within these molecules, which help to regulate our genetic code, they were able to identify a microRNA which is highly elevated in those with schizophrenia, compared to individuals who do not have the disease.
However, the study could not say whether the microRNA changes were a result of the schizophrenia, or a possible precursor biomarker. Further research is needed to determine whether such findings actually could predict schizophrenia or not, or whether it’s simply an expression of fully developed schizophrenia.
If this change comes near the beginning of the timeline, it could be invaluable for early diagnostics. This would mean early intervention, better treatment, and possibly even the postponement of symptoms. If, for example, a person has a family history of schizophrenia, this test could reveal whether they too suffer from the disease.
“We were able to narrow down the microRNA to a differentially expressed set, and from there down to a specific microRNA which is elevated in individuals with the disease compared to healthy individuals,” Shomron said.
Afterwards, additional research revealed that this particular microRNA controls genes associated with the generation of neurons.
In practice, material for biopsy could be collected through an outpatient procedure, using a local anesthetic, said Shomron. Getting microRNA results would likely take most offices a few additional days, since most doctors’ offices do not have the necessary equipment to perform such testing.