Can you Smell Schizophrenia?

PLEASE go to and watch Private Practice, specifically the episode entitled “Triangles.” Part of the show is about a young girl who has childhood schizophrenia.

I must admit that I have a hard time wrapping my head around schizophrenia. I often get really confused when I try looking at the behavioral aspect of the disorder. I generally do not understand behavior anyway, so “my confusion” is nothing out the ordinary. Looking at the disorder as a “complex biological phenomenon” scares me because people are more than their biology. So what should I do? I go with what I know. I think about the biology. I know it is lame but I have to force my brain to make some sense of the disorder.

One of my goals in life is to research biological precursors to neurodegenerative diseases. Specifically, I want to study the things that go wrong in the visual system before one gets Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Muscular Dystrophy, Huntington’s, etc. etc. So naturally, I am interested in all the biological problems that occur before one gets schizophrenia. I know there is also a relatively new line of research on the enormous amount of problems that occur in people who actually get schizophrenia and their relatives who do not.  I think people call it endophenotypes. What is interesting is when scientist study families where one or two people get the full fledge disorder/disease, these biological predispositions/markers can exist even in family members who do not get it. In Turetsky, Moberg, Arnold, Doty, & Gur (2003), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies on the olfactory bulb were conducted using first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia. The researchers found that patients with schizophrenia and their first-degree relatives had lower olfactory bulb volume on their left side compared to age-matched controls. They also had abnormal thresholds in odor detection in their left nostril. Why does this matter? Even though patients and their relatives have lower olfactory bulb volumes, it is possible that the rate of degeneration is different for both groups. Perhaps a faster rate of degeneration is prevalent in people who will develop schizophrenia. So can an olfaction detection test be used as a biological/behavioral marker for schizophrenia?

My other interest is actually in eye movement. In this one experiment, schizophrenic patients were asked to participate in a saccadic test (Tu, Buckner, Zollei, Dyckman, Goff, & Manoach, 2010). In this paradigm, patients are instructed to look toward or look away from a stimulus after it is presented. Normally, people have a propensity to look toward a new stimulus after it is presented in order to shift their focus. The researchers hypothesized that patients with schizophrenia will have a higher latency to look toward/or away from a stimulus in the saccadic paradigm because previous research suggests that schizophrenics have abnormalities in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the area of the brain that is responsible for volitional ocular motor control. Briefly, participants were exposed to a stimulus and an eye tracking device monitored their latency to look (or inhibit the need to look) at that stimulus. The number of prosaccadic and antisaccadic errors were monitored in each group. The results suggest that schizophrenics and health controls had similar latencies to look at or away from the stimulus; however, patients with schizophrenia made significantly more prosaccadic and antisaccadic errors. So, we arrive at the same question. Can an Ophthalmololgist/Neuro-Ophthalmologist use this test to determine the likelihood of getting schizophrenia?

The truth is there are tons of reason why people have smaller olfactory bulb volumes and abnormal saccadic eye movements. On the other hand, I would not mind taking these tests if it could potentially save me and my family a lifetime of pain.

Think about it!



5 thoughts on “Can you Smell Schizophrenia?

  1. Sharonda: very interesting post! I am fascinated that these tests on the visual system are linked to neurodegenerative diseases. I would also agree that I would not mind taking these tests in order to “screen” for certain diseases that may overcome me later in life. It certainly would save many from the complete shock of the diseases and we may be better equipped to deal with these pains if we could prepare for them in advance. On the other hand, we want to be able to live life to the fullest and in the moment without worrying about something that might happen to us down the road. But I think I want to know as well!! Thanks for the research conclusions! Very insightful!


  2. Sara has a good point that these early detection tests might cause people to worry about disorders they might get later in life, but if people worry early on there’s a much better chance that they won’t develop problems or that their problems would be less severe. Especially in a disorder like Schizophrenia where diagnosis is really delayed, I think it would be worth it to administer precautionary tests to people who have a family history of schizophrenia.


  3. It makes sense to me that all these seemingly unrelated functions are correlated with the diagnosis of Schizophrenia because of the vast physiological impairments Schizophrenia causes in the brain. I feel like if we began testing for Schizophrenia we will end up with a Gattaca like society, and I definitely don’t want that!


  4. I always air on the side of don’t do pretests for something you have no control over. Although there is a possibility that you will have schizophrenia, like Sharonda said there can be many explanations for these differences. Why worry about something that you cannot control especially when stress is a trigger for the onset of Schizophrenia.


  5. Do you think the abnormal eye movements could also be an effect of dealing with delusions and hallucinations? If I were hearing voices and seeing things, I’m sure my eyes would be darting around! I wonder if they controlled for that by asking participants to relay what they were experiencing/if they were experiencing any positive symptoms during the course of the study. Also, if a screening could only report on predispositions for schizophrenia, perhaps the stress of knowing you had a predisposition could lead to the manifestation of schizophrenia when it may otherwise have stayed dormant?!


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