While there is no clear-cut “cure” or definitive test for mental illness, medical and scientific research is striving to get to a place where those things could be realities. The promise of recovery is a continuous goal, and recovery looks different for every person who lives with schizophrenia. Many people living with schizophrenia do not have access to the array of treatment and service options they need to achieve wellness, and for others, the treatments that are available do not adequately, or at all, address the symptoms of this serious illness. And without treatment and services that work, schizophrenia can often be wholly debilitating.
Currently, many exciting prospects are on the horizon for the science behind and the treatment of schizophrenia. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), testing, breakthroughs in brain research and a paradigm shift in the medical field to the approach of treatment are all areas pushing toward better treatment and recovery as well as understanding the illness. One day, researchers, mental health professionals and the individuals who live with schizophrenia hope to see new advancements that the world has been waiting for.
CBT, a psychological treatment method often used in the recovery process of anxiety, emotional and affective disorders, is described by the National Association of Cognitive-behavioral Therapists (NACBT) as “therapy based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations and events.” CBT is recently being put to the test in terms of treating schizophrenia.
According to the current issue of Clinical Schizophrenia and Related Psychoses, CBT is making strides and offers hope for future treatment. In a nutshell, a certified, trained specialist works with an individual to rewire thought patterns and manage emotions and reactions. This is important in the treatment of schizophrenia because it can help affect the outcomes of the way a person processes his or her positive symptoms; in theory, any hallucinations or delusions would instead be recognized as symptoms of the illness, not “reality.” To learn more about CBT, visit the NACBT site.
Genetic and prenatal research in relation to schizophrenia is not a new concept, but exciting developments have taken place in 2010. Dr. John Gilmore and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina evaluated brain size in utero of individuals who later went on to develop schizophrenia, and found that, especially in males, fetal brain size at particular stages of development could mean a risk of developing the illness. Findings like these could lead to many preventative approaches in the future.
Dr. Stephen Traynelis and his team at the Emory University School of Medicine recently identified a new class of compounds that enhance signaling molecules in the brain called NMDA receptors, which scientists believe are functioning at low levels in people living with schizophrenia. “Compounds emerging from this optimization process could become useful tools for dissecting NMDA receptor contributions to cognition, learning [and] memory,” Dr. Traynelis said. This means discovering and manipulating new areas of the brain allows for new drug development to treat schizophrenia in different ways.
Personalized medicine, including blood tests to gather genetic information, are an emerging health care area. Two examples of personalized medicine in the mental health arena are the tests being offered by VeriPsych, who offer a test that looks for biomarkers in the blood, and the research being completed at SureGene, which may become more widely used in the future. SureGene's investigations focus on how a person’s genetics can affect his or her ability to respond to specific medications, potentially offering the physician and individual useful information when determining the appropriate medicines to use as part of the treatment plan.
The tests have supporters as well as skeptics. Many mental health experts aren’t placing too much stock in the test, particularly because physical tests can often raise more questions than they answer and they reasons for results are often not clear (patients testing “positive” in VeriPsych may be doing so due to recent medicine therapy, for example). “There are no standard lab tests to diagnose mental disorders,” says Dr. William Carpenter, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland and chairman of the current DSM psychosis workgroup.
In a recent study by VeriPsych developers, however, biomarkers in blood samples from 577 patients living with schizophrenia in various stages of illness— including some who had recently experienced an initial psychotic episode and some were chronically ill—were measured against those of 229 people without the disorder. Researchers found the test to be accurate in diagnosing 83 percent of patients. What this means exactly is unclear—it’s definitely not a true test for diagnosing the illness—but it does indicate we are making progress.
For a great cross section of the latest in schizophrenia research and where it is headed, explore the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, guest-edited by Dr. Elaine Walker, a psychological scientist and schizophrenia expert at Emory University.