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Mark Lenzenweger

Eye Movements Can Help Determine Schizophrenia Risk

Schizophrenia has a strong genetic component, but a Binghamton University researcher and his collaborators may have found a way to measure the risk and individual has of developing the mental illness.

A Binghamton University researcher has established a new framework to help determine whether individuals might be at risk for schizophrenia.

Mark F. Lenzenweger, a distinguished professor of clinical science, neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and his collaborators are the first to show that abnormalities in eye movements and attention can be used to divide people into two groups in relation to schizophrenia-related risk.

"Schizophrenia affects one in every 100 people," says Lenzenweger, who considers it the costliest form of mental illness known to humankind. About 80 percent of what determines schizophrenia is related to genetic influences.

Lenzenweger, who was drawn to both the scientific challenge of schizophrenia and its human toll early in his academic career, says schizophrenia begins anywhere from 15 to 30 and continues onward.

"We need to get a handle on this illness because it is so devastating," he said. "It represents a major public health concern with staggering economic costs and untold costs to individuals with the illness and their families in terms of suffering."

Lenzenweger's study, funded by a $100,000 Distinguished Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), involved 300 adults drawn from the general population. Results, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, suggest that the manner in which the eyes can follow a target and how well one can pay attention to a task together help to pinpoint risk factors related to schizophrenia.

"Prior studies started with someone who had the illness and then we found the deficits, such as eye tracking and sustained attention problems," Lenzenweger explained. "What I said we needed to do was to go into the general population and measure those traits - those neurocognitive processes - and see whether impairment in those processes predicts schizotypic features. So I really turned the whole question on its head."

Lenzenweger collaborated with Geoff McLachlan at the University of Queensland in Australia and Donald B. Rubin of Harvard University, both leaders in the application of new statistical methods to health-related problems.

Lenzenweger and his colleagues showed that people could be divided into two groups, those at risk and those not at risk. Although the risk predictions can be made now, they are not yet ready for clinical applications by practicing therapists.

Last Updated: 9/29/14