Researchers found that poor social functioning (before the onset of schizophrenia symptoms) as rated by teachers on a psychometric scale, significantly set apart children who later developed schizophrenia-spectrum disorder from those who did not develop mental illness and also those who developed other mental health disorders.
Furthermore, social functioning tended to predict the risk for schizophrenia independently of genetic risk, and with little interaction between these two factors.
“[R]esults from this 48-year longitudinal record suggest that children on a trajectory toward schizophrenia-spectrum disorders demonstrate interpersonal deficits early in life, and that teachers provide valuable information regarding children’s social functioning,” wrote lead researcher Jason Schiffman, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland and colleagues in Schizophrenia Research.
The study involved 244 participants: 33 were diagnosed with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, 78 with other psychiatric disorders, and 133 with no mental health disorders between the ages of 31–33 years.
Between the ages of 10-13 years, the participants with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders had the worst social functioning scores with an average of 17.5 out of a possible 25.0, compared with 20.7 for those with other psychiatric disorders, and 21.7 for those with no mental health problems.
Although most of the patients who later developed schizophrenia-spectrum disorders were at high risk for the disorder — due to having a parent who was hospitalized with the condition — this genetic risk did not significantly change the strength of the relationship between early social functioning and later development of the disorder. The link was also not affected by gender or socioeconomic status.
The researchers note that social functioning is likely to have a “two-hit” effect in predicting the risk for schizophrenia. For example, along with offering an observable marker of illness vulnerability that is present years before the onset of the disease, it may also contribute to chronic stress, potentially intensifying the risk for schizophrenia.
“Thus social functioning can be viewed as a potential marker of a ‘first-hit,’ as well as a possible contributor to a ‘second-hit,’ ” they wrote in the report.
Schizophrenia is a rare but serious psychiatric disorder, usually beginning in late adolescence, and is characterized by hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, cognitive impairment, social withdrawal, self-neglect and loss of motivation and initiative.
Source: Schizophrenia Research