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Basic symptoms, defined as subjectively perceived disturbances in thought, perception and other essential mental processes, have been established as a predictor of psychotic disorders. However, the relationship between basic symptoms and family history of a transdiagnostic range of severe mental illness, including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, has not been examined.
We sought to test whether non-severe mood disorders and severe mood and psychotic disorders in parents is associated with increased basic symptoms in their biological offspring.
We measured basic symptoms using the Schizophrenia Proneness Instrument – Child and Youth Version in 332 youth aged 8–26 years, including 93 offspring of control parents, 92 offspring of a parent with non-severe mood disorders, and 147 offspring of a parent with severe mood and psychotic disorders. We tested the relationships between parent mental illness and offspring basic symptoms in mixed-effects linear regression models.
Offspring of a parent with severe mood and psychotic disorders (B = 0.69, 95% CI 0.22–1.16, P = 0.004) or illness with psychotic features (B = 0.68, 95% CI 0.09–1.27, P = 0.023) had significantly higher basic symptom scores than control offspring. Offspring of a parent with non-severe mood disorders reported intermediate levels of basic symptoms, that did not significantly differ from control offspring.
Basic symptoms during childhood are a marker of familial risk of psychopathology that is related to severity and is not specific to psychotic illness.
Children of parents with mood and psychotic disorders are at elevated risk for a range of behavioral and emotional problems. However, as the usual reporter of psychopathology in children is the parent, reports of early problems in children of parents with mood and psychotic disorders may be biased by the parents' own experience of mental illness and their mental state.
Independent observers rated psychopathology using the Test Observation Form in 378 children and youth between the ages of 4 and 24 (mean = 11.01, s.d. = 4.40) who had a parent with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or no history of mood and psychotic disorders.
Observed attentional problems were elevated in offspring of parents with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (effect sizes ranging between 0.31 and 0.56). Oppositional behavior and language/thought problems showed variable degrees of elevation (effect sizes 0.17 to 0.57) across the three high-risk groups, with the greatest difficulties observed in offspring of parents with bipolar disorder. Observed anxiety was increased in offspring of parents with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder (effect sizes 0.19 and 0.25 respectively) but not in offspring of parents with schizophrenia.
Our results suggest that externalizing problems and cognitive and language difficulties may represent a general manifestation of familial risk for mood and psychotic disorders, while anxiety may be a specific marker of liability for mood disorders. Observer assessment may improve early identification of risk and selection of youth who may benefit from targeted prevention.
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