It is well documented that people with schizophrenia are at higher risk of developing metabolic disorders, a collection of conditions such as hypertension and increased glucose levels. Metabolic disorder can lead to cardiovascular disease and is the leading cause of death in schizophrenic patients experiencing psychosis. Many antipsychotic medications, such as olanzapine and clozapine, are also known to increase the risk of metabolic disorders, such as antipsychotic-induced weight gain.
Given the high risk of developing metabolic disorders, researchers are searching for new ways to predict which schizophrenia patients are at risk of developing them and searching for ways to intervene early. Dr. Brian Miller at Augusta University believes that monitoring white blood cell (WBC) levels could be a potential clue.
White blood cells are an important part of the immune system and can be indicative of a range of conditions, including inflammation. Certain metabolic disorders, such as lack of exercise, can increase levels of inflammation in the body, which can cause other conditions like hypertension. These conditions, in turn, beget more inflammation, all of which can correspond to increased WBC counts. Previous research highlights that the metabolic and immune systems are interconnected, highlighting how important WBCs are to health care providers.
Dr. Miller believes there “is a subset of patients with psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, in which inflammation and the immune system play a more prominent role.”
Fortunately, WBCs can be collected by using a simple, routine blood test, which is usually part of a patient’s standard of care, making it easier and more accessible to collect and study this data.
Dr. Miller was recently awarded a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to review patient records from about 50 clinical trials to determine whether WBC levels could be a potential clue, or if there are any other indicators of metabolic health problems in people with schizophrenia. This will allow him to look closely at the connection between schizophrenia, metabolic disorders, and WBCs.
Creating a comprehensive profile of the potential indicators of metabolic health problems could be a first step towards the development of precision, personalized medicines to help people with schizophrenia manage their health.