A pioneering new study, led by experts from the University of Exeter in collaboration with partners from the Alterego FP7 EU project, has developed a new, 'mirror game' test using computer avatars to accurately detect specific variations in how patients move and interact socially - well-documented characteristics of the mental disorder.
Virtual reality could hold the key to unlocking an affordable, reliable and effective device to provide early diagnosis and management of schizophrenia.
For the study, the research team asked volunteers to perform a series of specific movements on their own, and then mirror some movements carried out by a computer avatar on a large screen placed opposite them.
The results of these first trials revealed that the test gave a more accurate diagnosis when compared to clinical interviews, and comparable results when compared to more expensive, traditional neuroimaging methods, the team has concluded.
They believe it could open up new, unobtrusive pathways for health professionals to diagnose and treat schizophrenia in the future. They are now looking at conducting clinical trials to confirm the effectiveness of the early detection technique, before it can be employed in clinical practices worldwide.
Dr Piotr Slowinski, lead author of the study and a Mathematics Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, explained: "Human movement can give a fascinating and sophisticated insight into our personality traits and behavioral characteristics.
"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.
"Although this is still at a relatively early stage, we are confident that clinical trials could reveal the potential of the mirror test to produce a reliable, adaptable and, crucially, affordable, method for diagnosing and monitoring treatment of schizophrenia in patients of all ages, and all stages of the condition."
The study is published in leading scientific journal npj Schizophrenia on Wednesday, February 1 2017.