Schizophrenia Blog

New Test to Diagnose Schizophrenia

Nov 4, 2013, 3:36 pm

An accurate and objective way of diagnosing schizophrenia has to date been elusive. Diagnosis relies upon individual doctors making subjective assessments based on symptoms. Recently though, a research team that describes the task of delivering an accurate and timely diagnosis of schizophrenia as; one of the most pressing responsibilities of modern psychiatry, had a breakthrough. The team from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) developed a diagnostic tool that claims to be 95% accurate and able to make a swift diagnosis. The team is called SACCADE Diagnostics and in their words they ”will bring to market for the first time clinically-validated objective tests to help clinicians with diagnostic evaluation and management of psychiatric disorders in patients with mental health complaints”.
 The tool is based on the measurement of abnormal eye movements associated with schizophrenia. The movements have been studied for more than 100 years. The original discovery was made by a Yale university psychiatrist, Allen Ross Diefendorf and a psychologist at Wesley University, Raymond Dodge. Together, in 1908, they wrote a paper titled “An Experimental Study of the Ocular Reactions of the Insane from Photographic Records” where they noted that abnormal eye movements were associated with the mentally ill.

That people with psychotic symptoms were unable to smoothly track slow moving objects, was noted in a Book “Eyes and the Mind: Psychophysiological Approach to Psychiatric Disorders through visual and Ocular Functions” by Sean A. Spence. This book summarized the work of Japanese schizophrenia researchers from the 1960’s. It noted that the eye movements made by schizophrenia patients exploring visual patterns, were less exploratory than people without mental health conditions. It also highlighted strongly that the movement was different in people with different mental health conditions. They noted that the distinctions were so pronounced that analysis could be used to diagnose schizophrenia.

Despite the body of work, only the team from Aberdeen has taken this information and turned it into a piece of equipment that can accurately measure the eye movements and extract a diagnosis. The test is called a SaccScan.  It is a simple eye-movement test which can recognize abnormalities unique to specific mental illnesses. Currently, when patients' symptoms and behaviour don’t meet diagnostic criteria, it may take as long as 10 years to diagnose the illness. SACCADE says that SaccScan can be completed and results available in around 30 minutes. They claim that it can distinguish between patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression 95% of the time or better. No other instrument offers this level of accuracy. The initial study using the technique involved a group of 88 volunteers diagnosed with schizophrenia and 88 controls. SaccScan was used to measure and track the direction of the volunteer’s gaze on an object. The initial results do confirm its accuracy.

The test has already won the 2013 Converge Challenge, and a prize worth £60,000. The researchers intend to use the cash to bring a product to the market. It is fair to say that there is much excitement, and the test has been named as one of Scotland’s most significant innovations.  

If the test can deliver on its promises, which does seem likely, it should shake up the profession and improve the perception of accuracy in diagnosis.  The test may also allow researchers to see a more accurate picture of recovery, as fixed objective tests are measured against real recovery rates rather than subjective diagnoses being revised to something else upon recovery.

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