"Prevention is better than cure", so they say. And in most branches of medicine, preventing diseases, or detecting early signs and treating them pre-emptively before the symptoms appear, is an important art.
Not in psychiatry. At least not yet. But the prospect of predicting the onset of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, and of "early intervention" to try to prevent them, is a hot topic at the moment.
Schizophrenia and similar illnesses usually begin with a period of months or years, generally during adolescence, during which subtle symptoms gradually appear. This is called the "prodrome" or "at risk mental state". The full-blown disorder then hits later. If we could detect the prodromal phase and successfully treat it, we could save people from developing the illness. That's the plan anyway.
But many kids have "prodromal symptoms" during adolescence and never go on to get ill, so treating everyone with mild symptoms of psychosis would mean unnecessarily treating a lot of people. There's also the question of whether we can successfully prevent progression to illness at all, and there have been only a few very small trials looking at whether treatments work for that - but that's another story.
Stephan Ruhrmann et al. claim to have found a good way of predicting who'll go on to develop psychosis in their paper Prediction of Psychosis in Adolescents and Young Adults at High Risk. This is based on the European Prediction of Psychosis Study (EPOS) which was run at a number of early detection clinics in Britain and Europe. People were referred to the clinics through various channels if someone was worried they seemed a bit, well, prodromal
245 people consented to take part in the study and met the inclusion criteria meaning they were at "high risk of psychosis" according to at least one of two different systems, the Ultra High Risk (UHR) or the COGDIS criteria. Both class you as being at risk if you show short lived or mild symptoms a bit like those seen in schizophrenia i.e.
Referral sources included psychiatrists, psychologists, general practitioners, outreach clinics, counseling services, and teachers; patients also initiated contact. Knowledge about early warning signs (e.g., concentration and attention disturbances, unexplained functional decline) and inclusion criteria was disseminated to mental health professionals as well as institutions and persons who might be contacted by at-risk persons seeking help.
Then they followed up the 245 kids for 18 months and saw what happened to them.
COGDIS: inability to divide attention; thought interference, pressure, and blockage; and disturbances of receptive and expressive speech, disturbance of abstract thinking, unstable ideas of reference, and captivation of attention by details of the visual field...
UHR: unusual thought content/delusional ideas, suspiciousness/persecutory ideas, grandiosity, perceptual abnormalities/hallucinations, disorganized communication, and odd behavior/appearance... Brief limited intermittent psychotic symptoms (BLIPS) i.e. hallucinations, delusions, or formal thought disorders that resolved spontaneously within 1 week...
What happened was that 37 of them developed full-blown psychosis: 23 suffered schizophrenia according to DSM-IV criteria, indicating severe and prolonged symptoms; 6 had mood disorders, i.e depression or bipolar disorder, with psychotic features, and the rest mostly had psychotic episodes too short to be classed as schizophrenia. 37 people is 19% of the 183 for whom full 18 month data was available; the others dropped out of the study, or went missing for some reason.
Is 19% high or low? Well, it's much higher than the rate you'd see in randomly selected people, because the risk of getting schizophrenia is less than 1% lifetime and this was only 18 months; the risk of a random person developing psychosis in any given year has been estimated at 0.035% in Britain. So the UHR and COGDIS criteria are a lot better than nothing.
On the other hand 19% is far from being "all": 4 out of 5 of the supposedly "high risk" kids in this study didn't in fact get ill, although some of them probably developed illness after the 18 month period was over.
The authors also came up with a fancy algorithm for predicting risk based on your score on various symptom rating scales, and they claim that this can predict psychosis much better, with 80% accuracy. As this graph shows, the rate of developing psychosis in those scoring highly on their Prognostic Index is really high. (In case you were wondering the Prognostic Index is [1.571 x SIPS-Positive score >16] + [0.865 x bizarre thinking score] + [0.793 x sleep disturbances score] + [1.037 x SPD score] + [0.033 x (highest GAF-M score in the past year – 34.64)] + [0.250 x (years of education – 12.52)]. Use it on your friends for hours of psychiatric fun!)
However they came up with the algorithm by putting all of their dozens of variables into a big mathematical model, crunching the numbers and picking the ones that were most highly correlated with later psychosis - so they've specifically selected the variables that best predict illness in their sample, but that doesn't mean they'll do so in any other case. This is basically the "voodoo" non-independence problem that has so troubled fMRI, although the authors, to their credit, recognize this and issue the appropriate cautions.
So overall, we can predict psychosis, sometimes, but far from perfectly. More research is needed. One of the proposed additions to the new DSM-V psychiatric classification system is "Psychosis Risk Syndrome" i.e. the prodrome; it's not currently a disorder in DSM-IV. This idea has been attacked as an invitation to push antipsychotic drugs on kids who aren't actually ill and don't need them. On the other hand though, we shouldn't forget that we're talking about terrible illnesses here: if we could successfully predict and prevent psychosis, we'd be doing a lot of good.
Ruhrmann, S., Schultze-Lutter, F., Salokangas, R., Heinimaa, M., Linszen, D., Dingemans, P., Birchwood, M., Patterson, P., Juckel, G., Heinz, A., Morrison, A., Lewis, S., Graf von Reventlow, H., & Klosterkotter, J. (2010). Prediction of Psychosis in Adolescents and Young Adults at High Risk: Results From the Prospective European Prediction of Psychosis Study Archives of General Psychiatry, 67 (3), 241-251 DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.206