A new, non-invasive method to determine symptoms of schizophrenia may result in earlier detection of the disorder, according to research by doctors at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine.
Working in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., Dr. Noam Shomron found that extracted tissue from inside the nasal cavity contains genetic expressions specific to schizophrenia. The method is a significant upgrade over the traditional practice for determining schizophrenia, which could only be performed post-mortem.
“Detecting these high risk individuals, those with a molecular signature of schizophrenia, and working with them on multiple levels of treatments (even non-medication ones) might facilitate postponing symptoms of disease, or at least at first phase understanding when episodes occur,” Shomron said.
A total of 36 patients – 18 with the disorder and 18 control subject - were recruited for the study. Shomron and his colleagues were able to determine patients with “de-regulated” olfactory markers - representing the presence of the disease - by growing the recovered nasal cells in a petri dish.
Shomron plans to continue his research, and is currently looking for a partner lab to run tests on additional samples of a larger and more varied cohort of patients.
Researchers then extracted the tissues’ RNA and searched for “deferentially expressed” microRNAs, Shomron explained. He found that the schizophrenic patients had elevated levels of these microRNA regulators.
The benefits of this method are multi-pronged. For one, it’s non-invasive. According to Shomron, the biopsy process took on average of about five minutes, with only local anesthetic applied. In addition, early detection could potentially create an opportunity to delay the onset of symptoms. The big question that remains is whether the illness would express itself at all when people don't show symptoms.
“I feel the findings are very hopeful and I am glad to see there continues to be research on how schizophrenia develops,” said Alex Lesaski, a mental health counselor working toward his licensed associate counseling certificate at William Patterson University in New Jersey. “If individuals find out early on I believe they may have the opportunities to better handle their symptoms.”
it’s still unknown whether the presence of the microRNA indicators is evident prior to the development of schizophrenia or if it manifests as a byproduct of the disorder. Furthermore, Shomron said he is conflicted on how beneficial early detection can be.
“This is probably a two-sided sword.” he said. "What would early diagnostics give you? There is no cure, no real effective treatment, and medications only works to a variable extent and effective doses vary from patient to patient.”
Plus, because schizophrenic symptoms may sometimes be triggered by certain environmental factors, some people with the biomarkers may not exhibit any of the telltale symptoms, such as hallucinations or hearing voices.
“This means that early diagnosis of schizophrenia might, in some cases, not give too much to potential patients and eventually they might not become sick at all,” Shomron added. “It would surely be a burden to live with this knowledge if you are not prepared for it mentally.”
Lesaski delivered a similar sentiment, suggesting that early detection shouldn’t mean immediately drugging the patient, but rather act as an opportunity to develop coping skills to deal with the disorder.
“I believe early detection should not mean giving them a host of antipsychotic drugs, especially if there is no signs of positive or negative schizophrenic symptoms,” Lesaski said. “I believe early detection would be a great opportunity to teach the individual coping skills, healthy living skills, the importance of being open and honest with any difficulties they encounter and emphasize communication skills with their families.”