According to researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, a set of laboratory-based biomarkers have been found that can help explain brain-based abnormalities in schizophrenia. Their finding was published in the online edition of PLoS ONE, explaining how the endophenotypes could benefit clinicians who frequently find it difficult to identify and treat this multifaceted and confounding mental disorder known as schizophrenia.

“A major problem in psychiatry is that there are currently no laboratory tests that aid in diagnosis, guide treatment decisions, or help predict treatment response or outcomes,” Gregory A. Light, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and the study’s first author, said.

Doctors have always struggled with diagnosing and treating schizophrenia. About 3 million people in the United States suffer from the disorder, which is approximately 1 percent of the population. It is understood as a mental disorder that breakdowns normal thought processes and erratic behavior. This can sometimes be dangerous because they have a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is not.

Some common symptoms of schizophrenia:

  • Hallucinations – Things that the patient hears, sees, smells, or feels that no one else can. For example, hearing voices.
  • Delusions – False beliefs that are not part of the patients’ culture, and still believe them even after people confirm that it is not true. For example, they may have the idea that people are out to harm them, or believe that they are someone else such as a historical person.
  • Disorganized speech and thinking -They have serious problems with feelings, behavior, and thinking. They have a hard time connecting their thoughts logically, making what they say hard to understand because it doesn’t make sense.

Light, who also directs the Mental Illness, Research, Education, and Clinical Center at the San Diego VA Healthcare System said, “Schizophrenia is among the most severe and disabling conditions across all categories of medicine.”

To this day, the causes for schizophrenia are not known. However, there is evidence that it is probably based on genetic components because the disease is prevalent in some families.

When patients describe their inner experiences (what they are experiencing in their minds), clinicians are able to diagnose schizophrenia.

“But even the best clinicians struggle with diagnostic complexities based on sometimes fuzzy clinical phenomenology,” Light said. He went on to explain how “many schizophrenia patients have cognitive and functional impairments” and that is what makes it difficult to explain what they think.

A select battery of neurophysiological and neurocognitive biomarkers was examined by Light and his team to check if it could benefit specialists with reliable, precise, long-term indicators of brain dysfunction, even when obvious symptoms of the disorder were not apparent. They used scalp sensors to measure responses in the brain to simple sounds, with biomarkers ranging from tests of attention and memory to physiological assessments of basic perceptual processes.

The markers were measured in 550 schizophrenia patients, and a year later, 200 of them were re-tested. Results showed that most of the markers were considerably abnormal in the patients, were moderately stable between assessments, and were not influenced by slight variations in clinical status of each participant.

Further research needs to be done, according to Light, to test whether the endophenotypes can distinguish other psychiatric disorders, be used to show what the patients’ response would be to different drugs or non-pharmacological interventions, or possibly to determine which patients have a high chance of developing a psychotic illness.

Light concluded, “We believe this paper is an important step towards validating laboratory-based biomarkers for use in future genomic and clinical treatment studies of schizophrenia.”

Written by Sarah Glynn