Identifying and understanding early signs of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder

Meet Aja Neergaard Greve

“As early signs of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are rare in the general population, longitudinal studies of enriched samples such as children with familial risk of these disorders can provide unique insights into disease processes."

Associate Professor Aja Neergaard Greve is a researcher at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University. Born in 1983, the researcher is interested in the consequences of assortative mating in families with parental schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and the impact of environmental and genetic risk factors for children at familial high risk for these disorders.

Approximately 55% of children born to parents with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder will develop mental illness themselves during early adult life. They are at increased risk of developing the same disorders as their parents, but also for developing other severe mental disorders.

Aja Neergaard Greve explains the importance of her research:

“A better understanding of the early phases of the development of mental disorders, associated neurodevelopmental changes, and the needs of these children is pivotal for initiating early intervention studies with potential for prevention or reduction of mental illness.”

Important clues on the development of mental disorders

Aja Neergaard Greve’s research is based on the Danish High Risk and Resilience Study VIA, a large, representative cohort of 522 children born to parents with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and a control group without any of these disorders. The comprehensive study includes assessments of psychopathology, neurocognition, social cognition, motor and, social functioning, home environment, socioeconomic status, genetics, and epigenetics.

The children and their families were thoroughly assessed when they were 7, 11, and 15 years old. And we plan to assess them again at age 19. The study has revealed significant differences in almost all domains, especially between children born to parents with schizophrenia and controls.

Aja Neergaard Greve’s future research will more specifically focus on identifying and understanding the associations of cognition from parents to offspring in families with parental schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. By exploring this relationship - already at an early stage - she hopes to uncover important clues on some of the processes through which these individuals go on to develop mental disorders.

Identifying early signs

“Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are among the most costly and debilitating disorders both in terms of personal suffering for those affected, for the relatives and for the broader society. Identifying these mechanisms and possibilities for prevention and intervention before the onset of illness will be extremely valuable,” she says.

Aja Neergaard Greve started working on the Danish High Risk and Resilience Study VIA project as a newly educated psychologist. Her involvement in the project has since grown from being a research assistant to a Ph.D. student, postdoc, and, now as an associate professor.