Emory psychiatrist Michael T. Compton, MD, MPH, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine, is leading a project at Grady Health System to study how five traits may be risk indicators for schizophrenia and examine possible correlations with asymptomatic family members.
The Associations among Risk Indicators in Schizophrenia, or ARIS Project, is funded by a $45,000 grant from the American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education. The project aims to determine whether or not specific risk markers cluster within individuals with schizophrenia, within first-degree family members, and between patients and their family members.
Dr. Compton recently received a $25,000 Emory Medical Care Foundation grant to extend the project. ARIS-II will add a component to assess family history in a detailed fashion and study familial loading (one's presumed level of genetic tendency toward developing the illness) in the context of the five risk markers for schizophrenia. The researchers will also add a genetic component by examining a specific gene that is involved in cognitive functioning.
"We know of about eight to 10 risk markers for schizophrenia, which are characteristics that are present in patients and those at risk for the illness," says Dr. Compton, the study's principal investigator. "These risk markers are also present in first-degree family members who don't have the disease, and while each of these markers has been studied individually, they have never really been studied all together in the same patients and family members. We are attempting to get a better understanding of how these risk markers cluster together within patients and their family members."
The five schizophrenia risk markers studied in the ARIS project are: subtle fingerprint abnormalities, impairments in smell identification, minor physical anomalies, (specific traits of the head, face, hands, and feet), neurological soft signs (such as mild coordination problems), and impaired verbal memory.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects approximately 1 percent of the population over the course of a lifetime. It is associated with a variety of symptoms, including "positive symptoms" such as auditory hallucinations and delusions, "negative symptoms" such as social isolation and diminished drive, and subtle cognitive symptoms including disruptions in attention and memory. Risk indicators, or markers, are not symptoms of the illness, but indicate an elevated risk for developing the disorder, and may be found in patients and their first-degree relatives.
Just recently, Dr. Compton completed data collection for the first phase of the ARIS project and is now beginning data analysis. Forty-one patients, 27 first-degree relatives, and 38 normal comparison controls were enrolled in the project.
"The whole point of this type of research is that maybe someday we can better understand who is at greatest risk for developing the disease," Dr. Compton says. "If we know who is at highest risk for developing schizophrenia, then maybe we can do something down the road to actually prevent, or at least delay, the onset of the disease."