New study claims blood test could determine risk of schizophrenia

Written by Stella Bennett, Future Science Group

There is no definitive test to prove schizophrenia; a diagnosis is the result of a series of assessments by mental health experts. However, a recent study claims that a simple test can accurately determine if a patient is at high risk of developing the condition, based on certain biomarkers present in their blood.

Schizophrenia is a mental health disorder affecting more than 21 million people worldwide. The condition is typically characterized by delusions, hallucinations, dysfunctional thoughts and physical agitation. It is medically established that early treatment is highly beneficial for sufferers.

This new study, conducted by a research team lead by Diana O Perkins of the University of North Carolina (NC, US), offers a possible early warning system. The authors suggest that treatment during the early prodromal phase of schizophrenia, when symptoms first appear, could reduce the risk of more severe symptoms or disability. However, the authors note, a critical barrier to early treatment is the lack of any test to identify high-risk patients.

The team was encouraged by past research indicating abnormal levels of markers in schizophrenia patients, including inflammation, oxidative stress, metabolism and hormone levels. They analyzed blood samples of 32 patients with symptoms suggesting a high risk for psychosis. Thirty five control subjects were also tested. The hypothesis was that the presence of these abnormal levels of markers in the blood could predict which patients would eventually develop psychosis.

Subjects were assessed by clinicians every 6 months for up to 2 years and the team found that of the 32 high-risk patients, they were able to accurately identify those who would go on to develop psychosis through the presence of 15 specific markers (analytes) in their blood. Of these patients, 14 had developed diagnosed schizophrenia, 13 had nonspecific psychosis, two suffered from depression with psychotic features, and one each had bipolar, schizoaffective disorder and delusional disorder.

Commenting on the findings, Perkins said: “While further research is required before this blood test could be clinically available, these results provide evidence regarding the fundamental nature of schizophrenia, and point toward novel pathways that could be targets for preventative interventions.”

The authors suggest that the blood test should be used to assess other patients at high risk of psychosis in order to determine if their results are reproducible.

Although further work is needed, the team conclude that their findings show promise in identifying novel targets for psychosis prevention and highlight the need for original research in the field of mental health disorders.

Source: Blood test may help determine who is at risk for psychosis; Perkins DO, Jeffries CD, Addington J et al. Towards a psychosis risk blood diagnostic for persons experiencing high-risk symptoms: preliminary results from the NAPLS project. Schizophrenia bulletin. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbu099 (2014) (Epub ahead of print); World Health Organisation, Schizophrenia, accessed October 2014.