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Indian J Psychiatry. 2017 Oct-Dec; 59(4): 505–509.

PMCID: PMC5806335
doi: [10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_464_17: 10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_464_17] PMID: 29497198

Understanding the schizophrenia prodrome

Manju George, Shreemit Maheshwari, Suhas Chandran, J. Shivananda Manohar, and T. S. Sathyanarayana Rao

Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College and Hospital, JSS University, Mysore, Karnataka, India
Address for correspondence: Dr. T. S. Sathyanarayana Rao, Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College and
Hospital, JSS University, Mysore, Karnataka, India. E-mail:

Copyright : © 2018 Indian Journal of Psychiatry

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Schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder and its course is said to have an onset much before the
presentation with psychotic symptoms. Even though the concept of prodrome in schizophrenia has been
accepted, there is still an existence of a diagnostic dilemma. Various imaging studies and biomarkers have
also been studied for confirmation of this diagnosis. The critical period of intervention when identified
clarifies the doubts about faster and better outcomes.

Keywords: Neurodevelopmental disorder, prodrome, psychosis, schizophrenia

The evolution of the concept of schizophrenia dates back to the 1850s when Kraepelin delineated
symptomatology which shared a common course and outcome and called it as dementia precox. Later,
Bleuler coined the term “schizophrenia” describing it as a group of psychosis having a variable and
chronic course.[1,2,3] There is extensive evidence that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder and
its course unfolds throughout life. Starting from genetic and environmental factors, it will eventually lead
to deficits in neural systems hampering the functions of substrates critical for assessment of sensory input,
cognitive functions, and information processing.[3,4] The widespread acceptance of the
neurodevelopmental model of schizophrenia has not been able to throw light on the much debated
prodromal phase of the illness.[5]

It was Bleuler in 1911, who first gave the concept that changes in a person who develops schizophrenia
can be identified as a prodromal phase.[6] Accurate depiction of the prodrome can help identify
individuals who may be at risk of impending psychosis. Appreciating the first manifestations of the subtle
changes and intervening at the particular state with antipsychotic medication may be associated with a
better prognosis in the long-term outcome of the disease. Several other studies have suggested the use of
antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs to alleviate symptoms in a person who may be at risk. According to
recent developments, a prodromal state may be identified based on the current symptoms with reliability
and predictive validity. Appreciation is growing that these patients and their families experience
substantial current distress.[7] Thus, current symptoms provide another rationale for intervention research
in addition to the need for research targeting the prevention of schizophrenia.
Prodrome in clinical medicine refers to the early symptoms and signs of illness preceding the characteristic
manifestations. In psychiatry, it is referred to as “the initial prodrome” and “relapse prodrome.” The
widely accepted definition of prodrome was given by Keith and Matthews in 1991 as a “heterogeneous
group of behaviors temporally related to the onset of psychosis. Loebel et al. (1992) defined it as the time
interval from the onset of unusual behavioral symptoms to onset of psychotic symptoms[8] and Beiser et
al. (1993) defined it as the period from first noticeable symptoms to first prominent psychotic symptoms.
[9] The concept of prodrome does not refer to a hardbound set of signs and symptoms. It is an evolution
over time. Docherty et al. in 1978 described it as a “moment to moment march of psychological changes.”
The evolution of prodrome has been categorized into two main patterns. Pattern 1 was described as certain
nonspecific changes, followed by specific prepsychotic symptoms, and then eventually leading to
psychosis. Pattern 2 explains the evolution to begin with early specific changes followed by neurotic
symptoms as a reaction to these and then psychosis. Chapman in 1978 described 5 patterns of disturbances
which are disturbances in attention, perception, speech production, motor functions, and thought block.
From the above-mentioned symptoms, disturbance in motility occurs secondary to disturbance of attention
and perception.[10] Huber et al. coined the term “basic symptoms” which can be subjective complaints of
emotional, cognitive, or autonomic impairment. Another consideration was “symptomatic psychosis at-
risk state” which finally paved way to the ultrahigh risk (UHR) criteria which was set at a high threshold
in an attempt to reduce misdiagnosis among psychiatrists.[11,12] This is in contrast to at-risk mental state
(ARMS) which defines a syndrome that may or may not develop into psychosis. A person at ARMS may
manifest symptoms such as depressed mood, anxiety, and psychosis but may not necessarily meet UHR
criteria. The finding of duration of untreated psychosis and early intervention at this particular point has
provided a new insight into the etiopathological progress of the illness.[13] Studies have indicated better
socio-occupational functioning in patients who have received intervention.[13,14,15] Although the
boundary between the ARMS and actual psychosis might be narrow and vaguely demarcated,[16] “close-
in” follow-up strategy, which involves shortening the periods of follow-up helps us to observe the
transition to psychosis.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)-III-R (American Psychiatric Association 1987) focuses
mainly on observable behavioral changes in its description of the prodromal features of schizophrenia. It
provides an operationalized criteria of nine symptoms for schizophrenic prodrome:[17]

1. Marked social isolation or withdrawal

2. Marked impairment in role functioning
3. Markedly peculiar behavior
4. Marked impairment in personal hygiene and grooming
5. Blunted or inappropriate affect
6. Digressive, vague, overelaborate or circumstantial speech, or poverty of speech, or poverty of
content of speech
7. Odd beliefs or magical thinking
8. Unusual perceptual experiences
9. Marked lack of initiative, interests, or energy.

This list of criteria has been dropped from the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association 1994). The
International classification of diseases (ICD)-10 (World Health Organization 1994) acknowledges a
prodrome as part of the schizophrenic syndrome; prodromal symptoms are not included in its description
of schizophrenia (Keith and Matthews 1991). The whole picture of this prodromal phase should also be
compared to the DSM-IV concepts of fully psychotic disorders that have not been present for long enough
to meet the criteria for schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. These DSM-IV concepts are psychotic
disorders not otherwise specified, brief psychotic disorders, and schizophreniform disorders. Yung et al. in
1996 gave the criteria for the diagnosis of schizophrenia and divided it as three main categories.[18]

Category 1, the patient should have at least one of the following attenuated (i.e., subthreshold) positive
symptoms: ideas of reference, odd beliefs, or magical thinking; perceptual disturbance; odd thinking and
speech; paranoid ideation; and odd behavior or appearance.

Category 2 consists of participants who have experienced transient psychotic symptoms, which have
spontaneously resolved within a week.

Category 3 is a combination of genetic risk (i.e., being the first-degree relative of an individual with a
diagnosis of schizophrenia) with changes in functioning. The patient must have undergone a substantial
decline in the previous year. The criteria in the first two categories have been largely derived from positive
symptoms, and that negative signs and symptoms were not utilized as the basis of any of the categories.


The recent resurgent interest in the field of prodromal research has led to the development of various
assessment tools. These tools can identify symptoms in the phase which calls for intervention. The various
tools include:

1. Instrument for the retrospective assessment of onset of schizophrenia developed by Hafner et al.
2. Bonn Scale for the assessment of basic symptoms by Huber et al. 1980
3. Structured Interview for Prodromal Symptoms (SIPS) by McGlashan 1996[8]
4. Scale for prodromal symptoms (SOPS) also by McGlashan 1996[8]
5. Multidimensional assessment of psychotic prodrome by Yung and McGory in 1996[6,7]
6. Comprehensive assessment of ARMS (CAARMS) by McGory et al. 2003.

Structured interviewing technique was followed in all these scales. The SIPS and SOPS to rate the
prodromal symptoms were developed by research team from Yale University called The Prevention
through Risk Identification, Management, and Education. Among these, the most widely used measure is
the SIPS. It enhances positive predictive power, thus increasing the true-positives.[19] The SIPS is a
diagnostic interview used to diagnose the prodromal syndromes and similar to the structured clinical
interview for DSM-IV. The CAARMS defined the at-risk criteria and included in it the vulnerable groups,
attenuated positive symptom groups, and the brief limited intermittent psychotic symptoms.[20] The other
symptoms and syndromes which are measured in these scales include genetic risks and deterioration, brief-
limited psychotic symptoms, and attenuated positive symptoms; brief limited psychotic symptoms includes
transient psychotic symptoms at a specified frequency over a given period. Unusual perceptual experiences
and ideations that do not meet the level of conviction and severity required for hallucinations and
delusions are characterized as attenuated positive symptoms. These are vital in UHR criteria and charted
by all of these measures.

It was reported that 75% of the patients with schizophrenia passed through the stages of prodromal
symptoms. Subthreshold psychotic symptoms were reported 1 year preceding the onset and nonspecific
anxiety and affective symptoms much before this.[21,22] Only a proportion goes on to develop psychotic
disorder. Current estimates suggest that 1 in 4 of the patients who can be categorized as high risk will
convert to schizophrenia and hence warrant intervention. According to different studies, only 20%–40% of
those who meet UHR criteria convert to psychosis within 2–4 years. Studies conducted in both Australia
and the United States showed that young people with “subthreshold” psychotic symptoms and some
evidence of functional decline with a history of genetic risk for schizophrenia were ascertained and
followed longitudinally for the development of psychosis.[21,22,23] In a few earlier studies, it was seen
that prodromal status was associated with a 40%–50% rate of conversion to psychosis in 1–2 years. A
more modest rate of transition was explained by a group of researchers in North America. In Australia, 1-
year transition rates for patients have steadily decreased over time 50% in 1995, 32% in 1997, 21% in
1992, and 12% in 2000.[23]

Cognitive deficits including memory, attention, and concentration are the most commonly documented
clinical findings. This may incorporate relative disturbance in speed and verbal memory, social reasoning,
and emotional processing. Various mood changes such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, sleep
disturbances, irritability, anger, and suicidal ideas are reported as part of prodromal symptoms. Patient may
also present with spectrum of conditions including obsessive-compulsive phenomenon and dissociative
disorders. Even subtle changes such as social withdrawal, school refusal, deterioration in school work may
be considered as part of prodrome and may require intervention if the person is under UHR category.


Much of the work on imaging and biomarkers was done by Pantelis et al. in 2003. Their studies focused
on structural changes in the gray matter and following up these individuals at a later phase after they
developed psychosis. The structures affected include right medial temporal, lateral temporal bilateral
cingulated cortex, and inferior frontal cortex. On rescanning the individuals who developed psychosis,
there was a reduction in gray matter in the left parahippocampal, fusiform, orbitofrontal, and cerebellar
cortices whereas longitudinal changes were restricted to only cerebellum in those who did not become
psychotic. This progressive change which was studied in adolescence was considered to be due to a
combination of several factors. Genetic factors like those resulting from altered expression of genes are
critical for neurodevelopmental processes such as glutaminergic N-methyl- D-aspartate α-amino-3-
hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid-receptor expression or altered dynamics of dopaminergic or
GABAergic neurotransmitter systems.[24] Hormonal changes such as reproductive steroids could
modulate brain maturational processes such as synaptic pruning or myelination. Psychosocial and
environmental factors also have a role in dendritic arborization. Biomarkers which have a role in early
identification of psychosis have also been evaluated in studies by Schoebel et al. in 2009. Different
categories of biomarkers representing inflammation, oxidative stress, endocannabinoids, glucocorticoids,
and biogenic amine systems are dysregulated and interact with each other in the early phase of
schizophrenia. Biomarkers for impending psychosis might identify high-risk individuals and thus help in
halting the progression of aberrant neurodevelopmental processes.[25] This was also studied in researches
in mouse models of maternal immune activation which revealed that interventions directed at maternal
inflammatory cytokines protected against neurodevelopmental abnormalities in the offspring.[26]
Targeting risk genes and environmental factors in the signaling pathway are found to restore functionality
in a more efficacious way in these individuals. Studies have also indicated that treatments which reduce
molecular deficits produced by genetic variants like folate supplementation in people with certain risk
alleles have actually caused a decline in relapse rates.[27] Drugs which act on Val 158 and decreases
catechol-o-methyl transferase activity when given at an early stage have improved the socio-occupational
functioning in affected individuals.[28]

The importance of early detection focuses on prevention of the psychological and social disruption which
results from psychosis. Minimizing the delay between the onset of psychosis and treatment is the primary
objective for this diagnosis. Medications that decrease the stress levels have been found to reduce clinical
deterioration in individuals with biological susceptibility for schizophrenia. Anti depressants, anxiolytics
and mood stabilizers might in some cases enhance At Risk individual's ability to tide over stressful
situations.[29] Studies have shown that combination of low dose Risperidone together with cognitive
behavior therapy or supportive psychotherapy have shown a conversion rate of 9.7% (3/31) over 6 months
in the experimental group compared to 35.7% (10/28) in the control group. Over a 12 month follow up
period it was seen that 20 subjects became psychotic. Therefore, the 12 month transition rate was 40.8%
(20/49). Similar placebo controlled and double blind trial of olanzapine focusing on symptoms over 8
weeks, also showed improvement in prodromal patients primarily limited to the SOPS and PANSS scales.
In this study it was seen that there was a higher transition rate in the group where olanzapine was
discontinued.[30] 15 patients were observed over 8 weeks in an open label study administering
Aripiprazole. Significant improvement was seen in symptomatology in these patients.[31] The prevalence
of sub-threshold psychosis was higher in subjects at genetic risk.[32] Antipsychotic medications for such
people seem to be a logical extension for treatment protocol as a whole.[33,34,35] In a double blind,
randomized, placebo controlled treatment study; patients were supplemented with omega 3 fatty acids.
They carried out the trial on 81 ultra high risk individuals. The experimental group was given 1.2g/day
omega 3 fatty acids. It was observed that after 40 weeks monitoring period 2 of the 41 in the experimental
group and 11 of the 40 in the placebo group had converted to psychosis. The patients materialized
improvement in positive, negative and general symptoms with betterment in functioning in comparison to
the placebo group.[36] Besides pharmacological interventions, study of the effect of psychosocial
modification on the vulnerable individuals helps the young person to regain their capacity for
psychological well-being and improved quality of life. Psycho education assists the young person and their
family in understanding psychosis as a brain disorder rather than a mental illness. Individuals should be
taught about the coping and problem solving skills to better help the people deal with the manifestations of
the illness.


It is mandatory on clinicians to exercise caution before labeling a person for early intervention. The
symptoms of prodrome are subtle and often missed by family members and primary care physicians.
Hence, it is important to observe the patient at frequent intervals and monitor the progress over the course
of time. It is equally important to communicate the concept of prodrome to the primary care physicians
and primary health-care staff so that early recognition and referral is done, as they are the point of first
contact for the individual. Even at this low threshold sufficient referral guidelines must be present for
faster, better, and appropriate care. Promotion of mental health services is essential for people to
understand about possible stress-coping strategies which can also act as a prophylaxis against impending

A danger is undoubtedly exists that early conclusions may lead to widespread use of antipsychotic
medications as standard care in the treatment of symptoms which appear prodromal. The extent to which
an intervention will work is actually difficult to assess. Naturalistic studies establishing the base rates of
eventual illness are, therefore, critical for evaluating the successfulness of early treatment. The research
community of all times have put forth significant amount of data to identify and predict vulnerability of
individuals who might develop psychosis. The critical period of intervention if identifiable clarifies the
doubts about faster and better outcomes. Time should be spent to explore the ethical and social
implications at this stage, and the juncture gives us a moment to consider what measures might be taken to
minimize liabilities but does not preclude the opportunity for patient to receive treatment and improve the
quality of living. Of course, much discretion should be warranted in introducing the idea that an individual
may be at risk in developing psychosis. However, quintessential diagnosis is facilitated by exposure to all
the risks involved together with accurate information about the array of therapies that may have a
significant impact in the course of schizophrenia.
Financial support and sponsorship

Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.

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