Scientists are saying virtual reality could help diagnose schizophrenia.

They describe a “mirror game” in NPJ Schizophrenia in which a patient’s hand movements are observed both while alone and while trying to coordinate with a computer avatar or robot. Because those with schizophrenia tend to interact socially in a different way from healthy people, the researchers were able to analyze the movements in the game to determine which patients had schizophrenia with 93 percent accuracy. It also represents a diagnostic tool that is not invasive or expensive, the study says.

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“Long-term persistence of motor and movement impairments in schizophrenia patients have been known since its early description,” according to the findings, “and through the years, multiple indicators of schizophrenia based on neuromotor characteristics and variables have been proposed.” Among their numerous other cognitive symptoms like hallucinations, people with schizophrenia have slower reaction times, trouble performing complex motor functions and coordination problems, especially with others.

These types of symptoms appear before the onset of schizophrenia, so identifying them could lead to early diagnosis. And according to a statement from the University of Exeter, the game may also tell doctors whether treatment is working on specific patients, providing help in managing the mental illness.

“Human movement can give a fascinating and sophisticated insight into our personality traits and behavioral characteristics,” lead author Piotr Słowiński said in the statement. “Studying how people move and react to others may seem a simplistic way to help diagnose a patient with such a debilitating condition, but our results were comparable to existing, more expensive neuroimaging methods.”

The study notes, however, that it is limited by the fact that it used data from medicated schizophrenia patients: “This is important because most of the anti-psychotic drugs have side effects that influence neuromotor behaviour,” like producing involuntary, slow or restless movements. “Future research with pre-medication and medication-free participants is needed in order to assess diagnostic potential.”

Source: Tsaneva-Atanasova K, Słowiński P, Alderisio F, et al. Unravelling socio-motor biomarkers in schizophrenia. NPJ Schizophrenia. 2017.

See also:

Schizophrenic Brains Are Rusting

Why Schizophrenia Makes You Hallucinate