Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is part of a major international study aimed at identifying causes and effects of the early stages of schizophrenia in young people, with the goal of improving early diagnosis and treatment.
The mental illness is characterized by alterations in thoughts, feelings and behaviors, which may include psychosis, a loss of contact with reality.
By studying young people at high risk of schizophrenia, the researchers plan to characterize the variety of symptoms that can help diagnose schizophrenia early, as well as identify biomarkers in the blood and brain that may help predict risk. Such information could help identify drug targets that have potential for treating schizophrenia early or even preventing problems, such as disordered thinking, that are associated with the disease.
For the study, the researchers are seeking adolescent and young adult volunteers, ages 12 to 30, who have experienced symptoms of psychosis — such as hallucinations, delusions or intrusive disturbing thoughts — suggesting they may be at risk for developing schizophrenia.
“About 100,000 young people in the United States experience a first episode of psychosis every year, and over 1 million children and adolescents experience other problems in perception, thinking, mood and social functioning that put them at risk for schizophrenia,” said Daniel Mamah, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and the lead investigator at the Washington University clinical site. “Those problems tend to get worse over time, especially when untreated, so the goal here is to identify problems at the earliest possible stage.”
The Psychosis-Risk Outcomes Network (ProNET) study is funded by a grant of more than $65 million from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Overall, the study will recruit 1,040 young people at high risk of schizophrenia at 26 sites around the world. There are 18 U.S. sites, with other sites in Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Germany, China and South Korea. About 50 patients will be enrolled in the study at the Washington University site.
The grant is a component of an NIH public-private partnership designed to meet the urgent need for early therapeutic interventions for people at high risk of developing schizophrenia. The effort brings together the NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, and a number of nonprofit and private universities and other organizations, including Washington University.
The groups involved are working toward the shared mission of discovering promising biological markers to help identify those at high risk for schizophrenia as early as possible, track the progression of their symptoms and other outcomes, and identify targets for treatment.