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08-02 Searching for the biological cause of social withdrawal

Searching for the biological cause of social withdrawal

The Psychiatric Ratings using Intermediate Stratified Markers (PRISM) project is a €16.5 million public and private European consortium that will use advanced technology to unearth the causes of social withdrawal. PRISM isn’t looking for an antidote to shyness. Acute social withdrawal is often a harbinger of schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and depression. This article examines how PRISM will track brain activity to chart the etiology of mental illness.

Finding the markers

Dr. Martien Kas, University of Utrecht and University of Groningen, Netherlands, is project leader. Kas says mental health care requires biomarkers that can be quickly measured, not unlike glucose levels in diabetes. According to Kas, “If we can use the available techniques to objectively measure and to pull out the causes of social withdrawal, then the project will open a whole new way of understanding the causes and treatment of mental illness.”

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures blood flow to areas of the brain. PRISM will use fMRIs, electroencephalograms, blood tests and smart phone technology (e.g. behavioral apps) in novel ways to decode one of science’s great mysteries: the biological cause(s) of mental illness.

“Right now in psychiatry we don’t think about the brain at all when we are making a diagnosis or planning a treatment,” says Stanford University’s Leanne Williams. She believes the PRISM project will change the science of psychiatry.

PRISM may blaze new trails in neuroscience, but its methodology is not new. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) established the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) which explores neurobiological pathways underlying certain behaviors. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a behavioral phenotype is the “characteristic cognitive, personality, behavioral, and psychiatric pattern that typifies a disorder.” RDoC attempts to identify core behavioral phenotypes in various psychiatric conditions and determine how they relate to neurobiological pathways.

Symptoms and social withdrawal

Psychiatrists designate symptoms of schizophrenia as positive, negative or cognitive. Positive brings up a positive connotation but this is misleading. A positive symptom is an experience peculiar to a person with schizophrenia; something the general public does not experience. These symptoms include hallucinations (audio, olfactory, visual), delusions of grandeur or persecution and inappropriate reactions or behaviors (laughing or crying when a situation does not warrant or acting in an overtly sexual manner).

A negative symptom is something a person with the disorder lacks. Typically, this means a flat affect (no emotion) or catatonia (remaining motionless or frozen for hours at a time). When a person consistently displays signs of social withdrawal, these could be precursors to growing paranoia or the start of a gradual descent into his or her own world — to the exclusion of reality.

Cognitive symptoms typically inhibit the patient’s attention, memory, motor skills and ability to maintain attention. These all contribute to a decreased in intelligence and executive function.

Sovereign Health’s Adolescent Program provides treatment for individuals with schizoaffective disorder. This is a serious condition for anyone but it is particularly grave for a young person. Normal adolescence is a period of rapid physical and mental changes. The adolescent and teen brain is still developing – human brains do not reach full maturity until age 25. For a young person who displays symptomology of a personality disorder, early intervention and treatment is imperative. Call our helpline to find out more about our mental health and substance abuse treatment programs for adolescents and teens.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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