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Psychology researchers changing the way we diagnose, treat schizophrenia

Alan Flurry

Our colleagues from UGA Research Communications take a deep dive across the breadth of department of psychology research on schizophrenia, changing perceptions of the disorder, new information that could bring clarity to how clinicians diagnose and treat it in the future. Great work by some of UGA's best:

The popular understanding goes something like this: An individual, usually a young adult, begins having hallucinations—“hearing voices” is a common description. Believing these misperceptions to be genuine, they lose their grip on reality and withdraw from family and friends. Taken to their conclusion, the symptoms may result in unpredictable and dangerous behavior.

That’s the popular belief. But it’s not entirely accurate.

In reality, there are far more factors that go into determining an individual’s unique neurological disorder. Different behavioral symptoms call for varying responses. Social support systems, which can impact escalation of the condition, are diverse. On top of it all, everyone has their own genetic and neurological makeup, meaning not all diagnoses—nor treatments—are equal.

Therein lies the problem with traditional approaches to schizophrenia. Diagnoses can lack specificity, making it difficult to tailor effective treatments. Additionally, while 10-15% of the adult population has experiences associated with schizophrenia, only a small portion develops more pronounced, diagnosable symptoms.

So, what makes one high-risk individual capable of living a perfectly unencumbered existence, while others are left struggling? That’s what a pair of research groups at UGA are trying to understand.

From investigating early symptom onset to distinguishing people’s various unique neurological conditions, the researchers are hoping that a better understanding of schizophrenia and similar disorders can lead to more precise diagnoses, better treatment and an overall clearer perception of the disorder.

A new lens for psychosis treatment

Schizophrenia is one of the main psychotic mental disorders outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard for diagnosis in clinical psychology. Psychotic bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, also commonly diagnosed, share similar symptoms.

In the text, schizophrenia is marked by delusions or hallucinations, a departure from early definitions that centered on affect (or emotion), perception of self and volition. Bipolar disorder, meanwhile, focuses more on the mood, characterized by episodes of depression and mania. And schizoaffective disorder, like the center of a Venn diagram, displays a bit of both. Clinicians must distinguish between the three based on their own observational analysis and patients’ limited self-reports.

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Image: Associate Professor Greg Strauss, who has published widely on examining schizophrenia before symptoms advance to a psychotic diagnosis. Photo by David Mitchell.

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