Subtle differences in the shape of the brain that are present in adolescence are associated with the development of psychosis, according to an international team led by neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
In results published today in JAMA Psychiatry, the differences are too subtle to detect in an individual or use for diagnostic purposes. But the findings could contribute to ongoing efforts to develop a cumulative risk score for psychosis that would allow for earlier detection and treatment, as well as targeted therapies.
The discovery was made with the largest-ever pooling of brain scans in children and young adults determined by psychiatric assessment to be at high risk of developing psychosis.
“These results were, in a sense, sobering,” said Maria Jalbrzikowski, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Pitt.
“On the one hand, our data set includes 600% more high-risk youth who developed psychosis than any existing study, allowing us to see statistically significant results in brain structure. But the variance between whether or not a high-risk youth develops psychosis is so small that it would be impossible to see a difference at the individual level. More work is needed for our findings to be translated into clinical care.”
Psychosis is an umbrella term for a constellation of severe mental disorders that cause people to have difficulty determining what is real and what is not. Most often, individuals have hallucinations where they see or hear things that others do not. They also may have strongly held beliefs, or delusions, even when most people do not believe them.