Brain scans could help predict schizophrenia, research suggests.
Key changes were detected in the grey matter
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have revealed key changes in the brain's grey matter in a small group before they developed symptoms.
The finding suggests tracking these changes over time, combined with traditional assessments, could help doctors to predict illness.
The research, published in BMC Medicine, was carried out by the University of Edinburgh.
For ten years, scientists followed 200 young people who were at a high risk of developing schizophrenia because two or more members of their family had already been diagnosed with the illness.
They analysed MRI scans of 65 of the 200 young people, taken on average 18 months apart.
The researchers looked specifically for changes in grey matter - brain tissue made principally of neurones which transmit messages and help to store memories.
Eight of the 65 went on to develop schizophrenia on average 2.3 years after their first scan.
The MRI scans of each of these eight individuals revealed that they had changes in grey matter that happened before they became unwell.
Specifically, they showed a reduction in grey matter in a part of their brain called the inferior temporal gyrus, which is linked to the processing of anxiety.
People who develop schizophrenia are known often to exhibit signs of raised anxiety levels up to two years before the onset of full psychosis.
As members of a high risk group, each person in the study had approximately a 13% risk of developing schizophrenia.
However, the specific changes to the grey matter pinpointed by the researchers raised the risk to 60%.
Lead researcher Dr Dominic Job said: ''Although there are no preventative treatments for the illness, an accurate predictive test could help researchers to assess possibilities for prevention in the future.
"Current methods are good for predicting who won't develop schizophrenia but not who will.
"By combining brain imaging with traditional clinical assessments it might be possible to detect people who are at highest risk of the illness early."
However, Dr Job said a larger scale study was needed to confirm the results.
The Edinburgh group, who are funded by the Medical Research Council, has already used sophisticated scans to link a specific gene to psychotic symptoms.
Jo Loughran, of the schizophrenia charity Rethink, said: "Schizophrenia is notoriously difficult to diagnose; therefore Rethink welcomes any new research or progress into understanding the causes of schizophrenia.
"However, it would need to be independently replicated before it would make a difference to the thousands of people living with severe mental illness in the UK.
"In the meantime, reaching people early with the right care and treatment is the best way of recovering a meaningful and fulfilling life."