Recognising facial expression may one day help in early diagnosis of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, according to a Tel Aviv researcher.
Prof. Talma Hendler of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology said that schizophrenia usually emerges between the ages of 18 and 30, but diagnosis before the disease manifests could be the key to developing more successful treatments.
Building on her groundbreaking work on facial recognition and brain imaging, Prof. Hendler is hoping to make early diagnosis a reality by identifying the physical markers of mental illness inside the brain.
"With better diagnosis, plus earlier and more disease-specific treatment, we can make a real difference in the lives of these patients," said Hendler.
To study the physical manifestation of schizophrenia, she used brain imaging to illustrate differences between the brain activity of schizophrenic patients and healthy adults.
During the study, Hendler showed that when presented with photographs of emotional faces with "bizarre" characteristics, the brains of schizophrenic patients were much less reactive than established norms.
Previous research revealed when shown a bizarre "funny face", healthy minds respond with selective activity within the brain, sounding the alarm that there is something disturbing about the image.
"The visual areas of the brain are highly connected to other areas, including the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, but in schizophrenic patients, there is a diminished connection between the various parts, leading to disturbed integration of information - and thus to distorted experiences," she said.
"Recognizing facial emotions is a very early process, so young children could be screened for a predisposition to mental disease by measuring their brain connectivity while detecting emotional cues," she added.
An objective early marker of the disease would be especially useful for those already considered high risk, such as children with an immediate family member with the disease.
With early diagnosis to guide individually tailored treatment, it may be possible to reduce the effect of the disease and, in some cases, even prevent its outbreak.
"Current drugs treat the abnormal behaviour, not the brain disorder that is causing the behaviour," she said.
"We want to be able to develop more specific treatments based on objective brain markers, which are the actual characteristics of the disease," she added.