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Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 19:02 GMT
Artifical brain to spot schizophrenia
A mentally ill patient in hospital
The new test would speed up schizophrenia diagnosis
An artificial brain could pick up the first signs of schizophrenia, before people even start showing symptoms.

Scientists have invented a computer test which they say has proved 100% accurate in early tests.

The computer programme is modelled on the human brain, and has been designed to learn from experience like humans.

Clusters of software processors, called nodes, are designed to behave like brain cells.

Being able to make a reliable diagnosis early can help to optimise the outcome

Dr Peter Liddle, of the University of British Columbia

The system, was developed at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, by Peter Liddle, a psychiatrist specialising in brain imaging.

The artificial brain analyses the brain scan of patients looking for certain characteristics in the brain blood flow, which could indicate schizophrenia.

Dr Liddle told New Scientist magazine that the system could revolutionise the early treatment of schizophrenia.

Diagnosis delay

"One of the big challenges with schizophrenia is the diagnosis. It can take several years for it to be made clear.

"Being able to make a reliable diagnosis early can help to optimise the outcome," he said.

Dr Liddle said that recent evidence shows that certain parts of the brain are disrupted in schizophrenia.

He said the differences between the brains of healthy and schizophrenic people could allow early detection.

His team scanned four healthy patients and nine people diagnosed as having schizophrenia and was able to differentiate between them with 100% accuracy.

"This method seems to have the ability to pull out relatively complex patterns that the naked eye wouldn't be able to see," he said.

Artifical brain

Dr Pat Levitt, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania said the artificial brain had "really significant potential".

He said that because there are many different types of schizophrenia, which are treated in many different ways, it is difficult to categorise patients.

Dr Levitt said that if doctors could use the programme to classify patients they would be able to offer better treatment.

But Professor Robin Murray, of the Institute of Psychiatry, in London, said he was sceptical that brain imaging could provide all the answers.

"Nobody has ever found a specific brain abnormality that all schizophrenics have that nobody else has," he said.

Cliff Prior, chief executive of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship said that although the research is still in its early stages a tool for early diagnosis would be welcomed.

And he called for better training of GPs and a break down of stigma so that people seek help earlier.

"There is a need for more reliable diagnosis of schizophrenia. At present it can take anything from an 18 month to a two year delay from the onset of schizophrenia to people getting help.

"This research is clearly in its early stages and it is therefore important not to raise false hopes, but if it does prove successful, it could be a major help.

"However, much of the current delay is due to poor practice, not the lack of tool for diagnosis," he said.

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See also:

20 Dec 00 | Medical notes
Schizophrenia: The facts
01 Nov 00 | Health
Schizophrenia test moves closer
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