The development of schizophrenia in young people with a family history of the disease can be predicted using brain scans, a study has revealed.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh discovered that the brain shrinks at an accelerated rate in people who are healthy, but then go on to develop the disease.
After spending 10 years looking into the subject, they said the discovery is a “significant step” forwards and could aid early diagnosis and treatment of the condition, which affects one in every 100 people.
Those who took part in the study had two close relatives with schizophrenia and were aged between 16 and 25 at the start of the process.
The university said it is the first time that such changes in the brain size have been found in people at high risk of schizophrenia before they develop any symptoms.
Unlike previous studies, these changes cannot be explained due to the effects of medication because all of the people in the study were not using medication when they took part.
In healthy people, the brain begins to shrink from early adulthood onwards.
It is known that accelerated shrinking of the brain occurs in people with manic depression and schizophrenia, but before now it was not known whether these changes happened before people became unwell.
The study shows that the loss of brain tissue is concentrated in areas of the brain that control personality, decision-making and social behaviour.
Researchers said scans could be used to pinpoint shrinkage of the brain in people at high risk of schizophrenia and could help doctors diagnose the condition and start treatment at an earlier stage, perhaps before illness first appears.
The team looked at the brain scans of 146 people with a family history of schizophrenia, but who had not yet experienced any symptoms, and compared them to scans of 36 people with no such risk.
The scans were taken every 18 months over a 10-year period.
The study was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.