New Device May Help Diagnose Schizophrenia Earlier

Approximately one in 100 individuals suffer from schizophrenia; a devastating mental illness characterized by, among other things, delusions of paranoia, hallucinations, incoherent speech and inappropriate or flat affect. However, a new project known as TRIMAGE is currently underway, with the goal of furnishing people with a revolutionary new method of detecting physical signs in the brain that show schizophrenia in its earliest stages.  

Multimodal Technology

The technology engages in a “multimodal” approach, coordinating data from PET, MRI, PET/MRI and EEG systems, in an effort to determine whether or not, or to what extent, schizophrenia can be diagnosed in its earliest stages. Individuals predisposed to schizophrenia rarely exhibit symptoms of the disorder during childhood. Instead, symptoms oftentimes begin during adolescence or early adulthood. Indeed, there is a prepsychotic prodromal stage whose mean duration is almost fives years, and a psychotic prephase of approximately 1.3 years.   

Diagnosis in Early Stages of Schizophrenia

The symptoms seen in these very early stages of incipient schizophrenia are oftentimes quite similar to those seen in moderate and severe clinical depression, and clinicians must wait until the emergence of positive symptoms of psychosis, such as paranoid delusions or hallucinations, to distinguish the one from the other. The potential advantage of identifying incipient schizophrenia in its early stages may allow clinicians to treat the disorder appropriately before its more serious and destructive symptoms emerge, as well as preventing misdiagnosis, and the prescription of medication not meant to treat schizophrenia.   

Treatment in Early Stages

For example, a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy with low-dose antipsychotics seems to be effective during these early stages. Knowing that an individual is exhibiting signs of incipient schizophrenia would mean that the clinician would know to prescribe such medication, instead of, for example, an antidepressant. The disorder could thus be nipped in the bud before its more socially disruptive and damaging symptoms emerge. The project is being run by a group of seven European universities, and is being coordinated by the University of Pisa’s physics department. The study will involve 40 patients with schizophrenia, as well as 40 healthy controls. After establishing a multimodal paradigm and identifying biomarkers for the disease, in the first phase of the experiment, the actual trimodal imaging device will be built, during the second stage.   

The device will be constructed in such a way that it will reduce cost and improve the comfort of patients, while also out-performing other older devices, such as the PET and EEG. In the third and final stage of the experiment, the trimodal system will be used on 15 healthy controls, 15 prodromal individuals, and 15 schizophrenia patients.