The telltale blood of schizophrenics
It can take a long time for schizophrenia sufferers to receive the treatment they need – partly because diagnosis is not necessarily straightforward. Many of the symptoms could just as easily be caused by other disorders. A revolutionary blood test developed by EU-funded researchers helps doctors to make the right call.
The EU-funded SchizDX project has developed the world’s first blood test for schizophrenia. This breakthrough dramatically reduces the time needed to confirm suspected cases and provide treatment.
Finding the best combination of drugs for individual patients is another key challenge in the treatment of this disorder. Currently, the process can take months or even years. In time, SchizDX’s results could help speed this up as well.
Searching for signs
Contrary to a common misconception, there are no multiple or split personalities involved in schizophrenia. It is a disorder where the various mental functions gradually break down, making it hard for people to think straight and severely affecting their behaviour. Hallucinations and delusions are a hallmark of this condition, but they are just two of a multitude of potentially disabling symptoms.
Many patients eventually respond well to treatment, gradually regaining control of their lives. But to be able to treat the condition, doctors first need to know it’s there.
Given that the symptoms could be caused by a variety of problems, diagnosis isn’t easy. Other psychotic disorders, notably bipolar disorder and depression, can have similar manifestations. There could also be physical causes.
The fact that sufferers tend to hide their condition further complicates matters, says Professor Sabine Bahn of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Neuropsychiatric Research, a partner in the project. People developing symptoms of schizophrenia don’t usually attribute their altered sense of reality to an illness. However, many realise that others might question their mental health if they were fully aware of the situation.
The disorder can therefore go undiagnosed for years. And once it is detected, it can take many months to find a suitable drug regime. In the interval, lives and livelihoods may be destroyed.
Not just in the mind
Faster diagnosis accelerates the recovery process, but that isn’t the only advantage. The blood test could also help to detect the disease in the early stages, improving the chances of successful management. On the whole, says Prof. Bahn, people who are diagnosed and managed early do better in the long run.
“The fact that mental disorders have a physical component has been known for a long time,” he explains, “and we also know that these disorders correlate with other physical conditions. People who have a mental disorder have a much higher rate of diabetes, for example. They also have changes in their immune system.”
The SchizDX team conducted extensive research into the traces that schizophrenia and similar psychotic disorders leave in the body. The aim was twofold: the partners wanted to advance the understanding of these diseases in general, so as to generate leads for the development of new drugs, and they also wanted to develop innovative diagnostic tools. Prof. Bahn is also the founder and chief scientific officer of Psynova Neurotech, the project’s coordinator.
The blood test – the first of its kind for the diagnosis of a mental health condition – has been commercialised and has already been used successfully by 32 clinical centres. However, it is not currently on the market, as it is being redeveloped to make the product less costly, says Prof. Bahn.
Other potential developments include upgrading the test to include bipolar disorder and depression. The aim would be to create a test that can cover the three disorders in one go – not ‘just’ to establish if a person does or doesn’t have schizophrenia, but to determine which, if any, of the three disorders the person does have.
According to Prof. Bahn, the outcomes of SchizDX could also be used to design a test that would identify people at risk of developing the condition, or a test that would help to pinpoint the most promising combinations of drugs for individual patients. The potential is vast, bringing fresh hope to patients and families around the world.