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Early intervention

Research team hopes a simple blood test will help identify biomarkers for serious mental illness

Imagine if a simple blood test could identify a person’s risk of developing a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia. Long before the patient had a psychotic episode, doctors would be able to intervene early and stave off the onset of disease.

Researchers at the University are doing more than simply imagining such an invaluable diagnostic tool.

S. Charles Schulz, M.D., head of the psychiatry department, last fall received a grant from Myriad RBM to launch the Proteomic Diagnostic Test for Schizophrenia, a project designed to test the blood of individuals who have prodrome syndrome—a set of early symptoms indicating the possible onset of mental illness—as well as those who have had a first episode of psychosis. Researchers theorize that heightened levels of certain blood proteins might be evidence of impending illness.

“This study could lead to a significant aid in the diagnosis of mental illness,” says Shauna Overgaard, research supervisor for the study. “It could assist in the identification of the neural basis of schizophrenia, and it could also serve as a possible opportunity for intervention to preempt disabling behavioral symptoms.”

University practitioners have a long-standing commitment to working with patients in the earliest stages of mental illness. Two years ago, with support from a $150,000 gift from the Wells Family Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation, they launched the AHEAD (Adolescents and Young Adults at High Risk Due to Emotional and Academic Difficulties) Clinic, which provides not just early intervention assessment and care for patients, but also outreach and education.

“Increasing understanding about the prodrome of schizophrenia is the goal of our community outreach,” says AHEAD Clinic program coordinator Tiffany Reis. “This illness shares similar symptoms with other mental health illnesses, so it’s not uncommon for it to be misdiagnosed as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.”

Sanjiv Kumra, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist who leads the AHEAD Clinic, believes early intervention is critical to treatment.

“The primary focus in psychiatry today is treating people once they have an established illness,” he says. “The paradigm shift here, however, is to identify people in the prodromal phase. If we catch it in early stages, it looks like we can delay the onset of disease, or even possibly cure it.”

Early results indicate that the clinic’s approach is working; Kumra estimates that only 15 to 20 percent of the people seen there go on to develop a serious mental illness.

“It’s exciting to imagine the impact the proteomic study may have on our understanding of major mental illnesses,” says Reis. “In turn, this new-found knowledge will further strengthen clinical care programs such as the AHEAD Clinic.”

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