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UNC Researchers: Early Detection Key To Diagnosing Schizophrenia

Posted October 13, 2005

— Researchers are learning more about mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Anti-psychotic drugs can help stop hallucinations and delusions. A study out of UNC Hospitals shows early diagnosis is critical to prevent long-term damage.

Today, there's nothing strange in Will Acuff's world. But about a year ago, he said he had a full psychotic break with reality.

"I was on my honeymoon and started experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations," Acuff said.

"People begin to tell you that they're hearing voices. People may actually respond to the voices or ideas as if they're real. Their behavior becomes odd," said UNC psychiatrist Dr. Barbara Perkins.

Perkins said genetics and environmental factors play a role in schizophrenia. She led a study to measure the benefits of early intervention at the first obvious signs of the disease or even earlier.

"It seems like the sooner we get people into treatment, the more likely they are to be in that proportion of people who can recover and function well," Perkins said.

However, many people do not recover. Unlike Acuff, they may go years without treatment. Antipsychotic medication may help prevent hallucinations and delusions, but brain damage -- the inability to organize information and memory -- remains.

Perkins said more physicians need to recognize the early symptoms of the disease. Acuff said now he understands the extreme mood swings he experienced as a teenager.

"But looking back on it, it was really the beginning -- warning signs of what was about to happen," he said.

One challenge to early intervention is not only do many physicians not recognize the early signs of schizophrenia, but they may be reluctant to diagnose it for fear it could be a negative mark on the patient's medical record.

UNC offers a special program called OASIS (Outreach and Support Intervention Services) for people newly diagnosed with the illness. More information is available by calling OASIS at

(919) 929-2311

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