The Nose May Know: Study Finds New Potential Way to Diagnose Schizophrenia

NARSAD Grantee Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D. expert on schizophrenia
Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D.

Schizophrenia, an illness estimated to affect 1 in 100 American adults annually, is both debilitating and difficult to diagnose. Psychiatric clinical evaluations based on behavioral symptoms have been the only way to diagnose the illness since there are not yet clear biological predictors (“biomarkers”) that can be simply tested for in the way, for example, a blood test can determine a diabetes diagnosis. Unfortunately, by the time behavioral symptoms manifest, schizophrenia is often already fairly advanced.

Brain & Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Grantee Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., members of his Johns Hopkins University lab and collaborators at Tel Aviv University conducted a study that suggests a simple biopsy procedure to extract neurons from the olfactory system in the upper part of the inner nose may provide a fast, safe and accurate way to diagnose schizophrenia. The findings of the study were published in Neurobiology of Disease.

The research team compared samples of 18 patients with and 18 without schizophrenia. They applied high-throughput technology to study the subjects’ microRNA (molecules that affect gene regulation) of the olfactory neurons. In the patients with schizophrenia, the researchers found elevated levels of a specific microRNA known, from post-mortem studies, to be elevated in individuals with schizophrenia.

It will be important to determine whether the alteration in microRNA expression begins before the behavioral symptoms of schizophrenia manifest, but the research team plans to conduct further studies and has high hopes for this simple outpatient procedure as a potential early detection tool for this major mental illness. Screening of high-risk individuals with a family history of schizophrenia could prove especially effective.

Read the study summary