Despite a lack of recent progress in the treatment of schizophrenia, our understanding of its genetic and environmental causes has considerably improved, and their relationship to aberrant patterns of neurodevelopment has become clearer. This raises the possibility that 'disease-modifying' strategies could alter the course to - and of - this debilitating disorder, rather than simply alleviating symptoms. A promising window for course-altering intervention is around the time of the first episode of psychosis, especially in young people at risk of transition to schizophrenia. Indeed, studies performed in both individuals at risk of developing schizophrenia and rodent models for schizophrenia suggest that pre-diagnostic pharmacotherapy and psychosocial or cognitive-behavioural interventions can delay or moderate the emergence of psychosis. Of particular interest are 'hybrid' strategies that both relieve presenting symptoms and reduce the risk of transition to schizophrenia or another psychiatric disorder. This Review aims to provide a broad-based consideration of the challenges and opportunities inherent in efforts to alter the course of schizophrenia.