For the first time a group of researchers are following teens who are at a high risk for mental illness to track changes that occur in the brain as they live their lives. The study, the Chicago Adolescent Longitudinal Project, aims to not only identify early markers of mental illness but also facilitate early intervention.
“When a family member with a mental illness comes to me and asks, ‘Is my kid going to have this?’ the idea is to be able to answer that question,” said Gisela Sandoval, MD, PhD, instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the Warren Wright Adolescent Center Program.
Other Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine faculty involved in the study are Will Cronenwett, MD, Matthew Smith, PhD, and Hans Breiter, MD.
When symptoms of mental illness first arise, they are non-specific and vague. By following a group of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 26 with a family history of mental illness, the researchers aim to figure out which ones lead to development of a disorder. The ultimate goal behind the project is early detection and treatment of emerging psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. By detecting and treating psychotic illnesses early, cognition can be preserved and future disability prevented.
Subjects will be asked to perform annual research activities such as neurophysical tests and neuroimaging MRI tasks. These tasks allow researchers to monitor cognitive performance and symptoms of anatomical changes. When certain neural networks have dysfunctional neurons that are not communicating, the plasticity of the brain is impaired, and this is when psychotic symptoms might arise.
“The hope is that if mild symptoms of a mental disorder arise, then we can intervene early and prevent the disease from becoming debilitating,” said Cronenwett, instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the Stone Mental Health Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Through this project we can learn more about how diseases work and prevent further damage. It is exciting research that can lead to new projects.”
Preventive treatments include cognitive remediation, strengthening brain exercises, and self-management skills, in addition to social cognition exercises.
The researchers started seeing subjects in January 2012.