Early warning signals in psychopathology: what do they tell?

Marieke J. Schreuder*, Catharina A. Hartman, Sandip V. George, Claudia Menne-Lothmann, Jeroen Decoster, Ruud van Winkel, Philippe Delespaul, Marc De Hert, Catherine Derom, Evert Thiery, Bart P. F. Rutten, Nele Jacobs, Jim van Os, Johanna T. W. Wigman, Marieke Wichers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Background Despite the increasing understanding of factors that might underlie psychiatric disorders, prospectively detecting shifts from a healthy towards a symptomatic state has remained unattainable. A complex systems perspective on psychopathology implies that such symptom shifts may be foreseen by generic indicators of instability, or early warning signals (EWS). EWS include, for instance, increasing variability, covariance, and autocorrelation in momentary affective states-of which the latter was studied. The present study investigated if EWS predict (i) future worsening of symptoms as well as (ii) the type of symptoms that will develop, meaning that the association between EWS and future symptom shifts would be most pronounced for congruent affective states and psychopathological domains (e.g., feeling down and depression). Methods A registered general population cohort of adolescents (mean age 18 years, 36% male) provided ten daily ratings of their affective states for 6 consecutive days. The resulting time series were used to compute EWS in feeling down, listless, anxious, not relaxed, insecure, suspicious, and unwell. At baseline and 1-year follow-up, symptom severity was assessed by the Symptom Checklist-90 (SCL-90). We selected four subsamples of participants who reported an increase in one of the following SCL-90 domains: depression (N = 180), anxiety (N = 192), interpersonal sensitivity (N = 184), or somatic complaints (N = 166). Results Multilevel models showed that EWS in feeling suspicious anticipated increases in interpersonal sensitivity, as hypothesized. EWS were absent for other domains. While the association between EWS and symptomincreaseswas restricted to the interpersonal sensitivity domain, post hoc analyses showed that symptom severity at baseline was related to heightened autocorrelations in congruent affective states for interpersonal sensitivity, depression, and anxiety. This pattern replicated in a second, independent dataset. Conclusions The presence of EWS prior to symptom shifts may depend on the dynamics of the psychopathological domain under consideration: for depression, EWS may manifest only several weeks prior to a shift, while for interpersonal sensitivity, EWS may already occur 1 year in advance. Intensive longitudinal designs where EWS and symptoms are assessed in real-time are required in order to determine at what timescale and for what type of domain EWS are most informative of future psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish
Article number269
Number of pages11
JournalBMC Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2020


  • Early warning signals
  • Momentary affective states
  • Complex systems
  • Symptom development
  • Psychopathology

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