Bioethics Blogs

Predicting Psychosis: Exploring Pre-Clinical Signs for Mental Illness

By Sunidhi Ramesh

This post is based on the January edition of the “Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News” series in which Dr. Elaine Walker from Emory University discussed the ethics of assessing risk and treating brain diseases before they can be diagnosed.
This self-portrait is often used to depict the distorted
reality that many schizophrenia patients face.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

“This calculator,” a 2016 headline states, “can predict your risk of developing psychotic disorders.”

Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder with psychotic features, are characterized by noticeable deficits in “normal” behavior accompanied by hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, an early onset (the average age of onset is in the late teens or early twenties), and a derailed life course.
Because of its early age at onset, the DALY (disability adjusted life years) value for psychosis is significantly greater than that of other illnesses (1). It’s no surprise, then, that researchers are asking questions. Are there measures that can be taken to keep at-risk populations from enduring a life-hindering disability?
Fifteen years ago, the answer would be no. Today, it (just might be) yes. 

How? Researchers have recently identified patterns in pre-clinical psychotic symptoms— patterns that many psychotic patients exhibit long before they are formally diagnosed with a disorder.
In schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders that “interfere with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others,” this pre-clinical period is called the prodromal period. During this time, patients often experience gradual disruptions in behavioral functioning (like being suspended from school or losing friends) that are accompanied by subclinical or reduced psychotic symptoms (like hallucinations and delusions).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.