A Tel Aviv University team say they can diagnose the psychiatric disease of schizophrenia at an early stage through the sense of smell instead of confirming such a diagnosis only by examining the nerve cells in the brain after death.

The speedy and exact diagnosis using neurons taken from the olfactory system was published recently in the medical journal Neurobiology of Disease.

A mental disorder characterized by a deficit of typical emotional responses and a breakdown of thought processes, schizophrenia presents symptoms that include paranoid or bizarre delusions, auditory hallucinations or disorganized speech and thinking, along with social or occupational dysfunction. These usually first appear in young adults.

Psychiatrists diagnose schizophrenia based on observed behavior of the patient and his and family members’ reported experiences. Neurobiology, genetics and early-life environments are also believed to contribute to its development, but no single organic cause has been discovered.

Recently, a TAU team headed by Dr. Noam Shomron, Prof.

Ruth Navon and doctoral student Eyal Mor, in cooperation with Dr. Akira Sawa, a Johns Hopkins University researcher in Baltimore, developed a new technique for early physiological diagnosis of schizophrenia.

They collected nasal tissue using a simple biopsy and carried out a genetic analysis.

Shomron noted that the technique makes it possible to diagnose the disease clearly and unequivocally at an early stage, when schizophrenia treatment can be much more successful.

Next week, Shomron will lecture on the discovery at a schizophrenia conference in Orlando, Florida. He explained that the team chose the olfactory sense because it is made up of neurons found in the upper internal part of the nose. This makes it possible to sample nerve cells without harming the individual.

Sawa collected such cells from known schizophrenics, along with similar cells from a group of healthy people, and sent the cells to Shomron’s lab in Tel Aviv.

Shomron’s team focused on a specific molecule of micro-RNA in the cell that appears at high levels in schizophrenia patients and compared them with the healthy individuals. Later, the team learned that the micro- RNA is responsible for controlling genes connected to the production of neurons.

The new technique, Shomron said, is “very easy to carry out. The biopsy is performed with a local anesthetic and no need for hospitalization, and the results are ready in a few hours. We hope these results will form the basis for developing an easy and exact technique to diagnose this serious and complicated disease.”

The road to an absolutely positive diagnosis, he continued, is still far away, but Shomron said he had much faith in the technique.

The next step is to find out whether the change in the expression of the micro-RNA molecule occurs before the schizophrenia symptoms or only after the disease has developed.

“If it becomes clear that the change occurs at an early stage and even before the disease breaks out, one can use it for early diagnosis, which is impossible today. But it has great value, because it can bring about early intervention and delay the appearance of symptoms, thus preventing great suffering to the patient and his family,” Shomron said.

Thus, if a family has a known history of schizophrenia, family members can undergo early diagnosis to find out if they are likely to develop the disease.

Even though there is no complete cure, the future patient and his doctors can prepare themselves for dealing with the challenges that face them, the TAU researcher concluded.

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