Researchers have identified five risk factors in teenagers that can help predict whether a person will go on to develop full-blown schizophrenia.
The five key risk factors identified by researchers are:
- A genetic risk for schizophrenia (as determined by family history), combined with recent decline in the person’s general functioning
- Higher levels of unusual thought content (e.g., thoughts that make little common sense, but the person can’t seem to let go of)
- An increase in suspicion and/or paranoia (e.g., believing teachers or others are out to get them)
- An increase in social impairment (e.g., staying away or not talking to friends)
- Past or current substance abuse
These five characteristics, identified at the study’s beginning, sharply increased the likelihood that a teen would develop schizophrenia. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of the people who had 2 or more of these symptoms went on to develop full-blown schizophrenia.
The largest risk factor found is a family history of mental illness, and especially schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. If a person is starting to have unusual thoughts or paranoia that aren’t typical of the individual’s usual personality, these are also warning signs of potential problems related to schizophrenia or psychosis.
The findings show that it may be feasible in the near future to reliably identify a person’s risk of schizophrenia as accurately as gauging his or her risk of heart disease or diabetes, and raise the possibility of preventing psychotic illness, Dr. Tyrone D. Cannon of the University of California, Los Angeles and colleagues wrote in the study. It is believed that the earlier schizophrenia is identified and treated, the less damaging its course may be.
Cannon and his team followed 291 teenagers considered to be at high risk for developing schizophrenia for two-and-a-half years to look for a more accurate predictive technique. All of the study participants had been diagnosed with prodromal syndrome for schizophrenia, meaning they had non-specific symptoms such as paranoia, disorganized communication, and unusual thoughts that could signal the onset of full-blown disease.
A significant number of the teens — 35 percent of the study participants — developed schizophrenia during the study. This is not surprising, since the researchers were focused on those at higher risk than normal for this disorder.
The researchers suggest that their data show that the first two-and-a-half years after a diagnosis of prodromal syndrome offer “a critical window of opportunity” for identifying brain changes that may lead to psychosis, and for intervening to slow or even prevent the development of psychosis and disability.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Patrick D. McGorry of the University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia and colleagues write that large clinical trials are now needed to investigate early treatment of schizophrenia. “While there are risks in the endeavor to reshape the early course of schizophrenia and related psychoses, it is now within our grasp,” they conclude.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that in most people can be successfully treated. Treatment works best at an early intervention stage, when the very first symptoms of the disorder first become apparent to friends and family. Medication in the form of antipsychotics is typically the treatment of choice that is most effective for schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders.
The findings appeared in the February 2008 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Source: Archives of General Psychiatry