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Philanthropy advances psychiatry department's research on early detection and treatment of schizophrenia

In the last decade, schizophrenia researchers have emphasized the importance of intervening early to treat this psychiatric disease, which typically first appears in a person’s late teens through early 30s, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Generally, the earlier that treatment begins, the better the outcome.

But unlike people who have other neurological or psychiatric disorders, those enduring the disruptions of schizophrenia often see a year or more go by between the appearance of their first symptoms and the beginning of treatment.

Today new programs in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry are closing that gap and improving early detection of the disease.

With support from the Minneapolis-based Wasie Foundation, the department last year started First Episode, a program designed to recognize and treat schizophrenia in young people as soon as possible. First Episode patients receive a thorough diagnostic evaluation to confirm the schizophrenia diagnosis and a treatment plan that might include medications and psychosocial therapy. The program also offers support for patients’ families and accurate information about the psychosis.

After meeting patients’ immediate needs, First Episode helps them meet a longterm goal of returning to clear and logical thinking. In its first year, the program treated 99 patients and helped two-thirds of them go back to work or school, says S. Charles Schulz, M.D., chair of the University’s Department of Psychiatry.

“Families struggle to help their loved ones affected by schizophrenia,” observes Jan Preble, The Wasie Foundation’s director of philanthropic programs. “If there’s a way to intervene early, that’s wonderful.”

The foundation supports another schizophrenia initiative in the Department of Psychiatry—the Youth Psychiatrist Fellowship, now in its second year. Fellows work with University psychiatrists in the First Episode clinic and assist with imaging research, which helps the fellows gain expertise in early phases of the psychosis.

Help for patients can be possible even before a schizophrenia diagnosis is made, Schulz says. His department also is studying the disease’s “prodromes,” the nonspecific symptoms that can precede the onset of schizophrenia.

“Patients often hear muffled sounds, feel suspicious of others but are not delusional, or have trouble with grades,” Schulz explains. “These people may benefit from therapy or low doses of medications. By acting so early, we hope to forestall or diminish the severity of the psychosis.”

The Wells Family Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation has funded the hiring of a coordinator to launch a new prodrome program. The family’s interest in early intervention goes back decades.

“Sixty years ago, after his son had schizophrenia, my great-grandfather gave money to the University for schizophrenia research,” says Wendy Wells. “We’re amazed at the kind of research they’re doing, and [the possibility of] early intervention to delay or perhaps prevent the onset of schizophrenia is such an exciting prospect.”

To learn how you can support schizophrenia research at the University of Minnesota, contact Catherine McGlinch of the University of Minnesota Foundation at 612-626-5456 or mcgra002@umn.edu or make a gift online today.

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