UA seeks schizophrenia diagnostic test

University of Arizona Neuroscience student Rohith Boyilla sits in front of the campus health building. Rohith attributes much of his success to the people that work there.m (Photo by Chris Blach, Arizona Sonora News)

Today, schizophrenics don’t know they’re sick. University of Arizona researchers want to change that.

Schizophrenia symptoms are different in everyone, making it difficult to diagnose, and no biological tests exist to determine if people are schizophrenic. Dr. Amelia Gallitano has been awarded a $170,000 grant to develop a test that allows for earlier treatment.

“Our hope is that the money will help us develop biological tests that can identify schizophrenia and maybe other mental illnesses in the future,” says Gallitano, a researcher at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Phoenix.

People suffering from schizophrenia often aren’t aware of their mental illness. Most learn after their first schizophrenic crisis. Many people with schizophrenia also suffer from a mental illness called Anosognosia, meaning, “lack of insight.” It makes people believe they aren’t sick.

John Nash, a mathematician and Nobel Prize winner, and John Hinckley Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, suffered from the disease.

“People experience symptoms at a young age but are rarely diagnosed. They are often diagnosed with ADD, Bipolar Disorder, and OCD,” says Linda Stalters, a counselor for SARDAA (Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America).

Schizophrenia in children is rare. However, schizophrenia emerges at a very early age, even before puberty. It often first appears in men in their late teens or early 20s and women in their late 20s or early 30s. Developing a biological test will eliminate many of the misdiagnoses and help people find treatment before they even experience symptoms.

People who live with schizophrenia often have relatives who suffer from it. This has made many researchers believe the illness is genetic, further pushing a need for biological tests.

Rohith Boyilla, a UA neuroscience student, wishes he had known.

“My mom didn’t start experiencing symptoms till recently. They usually pop up when she’s stressed or anxious,” Boyilla said, “It’s hard watching her some days. … sometimes she doesn’t know she’s sick.”

People suffering from schizophrenia often believe that extreme paranoia, disorganized speech, and sounds are normal

“Recent studies of the brain’s of schizophrenics show that the part of the brain that registers sound is triggered during the schizophrenic episode,” Stalters said. “That’s one of the reason’s it’s so easy for them to assume it’s normal.”

Treatment for schizophrenia is complex. No two people who have schizophrenia are alike, symptoms are different from person to person, and therefore treatment is different. Medication is often considered a last resort since medication affect everyone differently.

“We try to be proactive,” Stalters said. “Early intervention is critical. It is important to monitor symptoms in children that may be predisposed to schizophrenia and report any behavioral changes. Treatment often involves cognitive behavioral therapy, enhancement therapy, and even electric compulsive therapy.”

Behavioral therapy has been shown to be extremely effective. People are taught how to live with schizophrenia rather than mask it with medication. Identifying behaviors before they become a problem is crucial. Biological test could be the solution that many people need.

Rohith was a neuroscience major before his diagnosis. After, he decided that schizophrenia would be the focus of his work.

“I’ve always been interested in the brain, even before I noticed my mom was sick,” he said. “I figured I could help someone because I know what’s going on in their head.”

Chris Blach is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at cblach@email.arizona.edu

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