Background: Early diagnosis of schizophrenia could improve the outcomes and limit the negative effects of untreated illness. Although participants with schizophrenia show aberrant functional connectivity in brain networks, these between-group differences have a limited diagnostic utility. Novel methods of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) analyses, such as machine learning (ML), may help bring neuroimaging from the bench to the bedside. Here, we used ML to differentiate participants with a first episode of schizophrenia-spectrum disorder (FES) from healthy controls based on resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC).
Method: We acquired resting-state functional MRI data from 63 patients with FES who were individually matched by age and sex to 63 healthy controls. We applied linear kernel support vector machines (SVM) to rsFC within the default mode network, the salience network and the central executive network.
Results: The SVM applied to the rsFC within the salience network distinguished the FES from the control participants with an accuracy of 73.0% (p = 0.001), specificity of 71.4% and sensitivity of 74.6%. The classification accuracy was not significantly affected by medication dose, or by the presence of psychotic symptoms. The functional connectivity within the default mode or the central executive networks did not yield classification accuracies above chance level.
Conclusions: Seed-based functional connectivity maps can be utilized for diagnostic classification, even early in the course of schizophrenia. The classification was probably based on trait rather than state markers, as symptoms or medications were not significantly associated with classification accuracy. Our results support the role of the anterior insula/salience network in the pathophysiology of FES.
Keywords: First-episode schizophrenia spectrum; functional connectivity; functional magnetic resonance imaging; machine learning; salience network.