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New developments on the origin of schizophrenia

In Western cultures, symptoms of schizophrenia are considered to be severe and debilitating signs of psychotic illness. Based on the American Psychiatric Association’s 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), they include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech/behavior and negative symptoms. Some examples of “negative symptoms” include a seemingly inappropriate affect, and avolition, which is a lack of motivation for purposeful activities. Symptoms usually become evident between late adolescence and early adulthood.

Schizophrenia sometimes runs in families

Schizophrenia affects approximately one percent of the population and has long been considered to run in families. The chance of developing schizophrenia greatly increases for first-degree relatives, but not all first-degree relatives develop it. For example, in 35 to 59 percent of identical twin sets, both twins do not develop the illness. As a result, geneticists have been endeavoring to pinpoint the biological causes of schizophrenia, so that better prevention and treatment measures can be developed.

Genetic breakthroughs

Large, genome-wide studies have been done over recent years revealing the identification of many different genes associated with schizophrenia. Effect sizes have been small, however, meaning that the relationship between having a schizophrenia gene and having schizophrenia was weak. Still without a definitive cause, investigators were back to the notoriously impossible “nature versus nurture” dilemma.

More recently, a study found that certain versions of one of the genes linked to schizophrenia appeared to trigger excessive pruning of the brain during adolescence. “Normally, pruning gets rid of excess connections we no longer need, streamlining our brain for optimal performance, but too much pruning can impair mental function,” according to Thomas Lehner, Ph.D., who is the director of the Office of Genomics Research Coordination of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, which helped fund the study. Lehner continued: “It could help explain schizophrenia’s delayed age-of-onset of symptoms in late adolescence/early adulthood and shrinkage of the brain’s working tissue. Interventions that put the brakes on this pruning process-gone-awry could prove transformative.” The researchers postulated that counteracting excessive pruning in at-risk individuals might prevent progression to psychotic illness.

Spiritual views of schizophrenia

Alternatively, there have been reports of people with schizophrenia who have improved through shamanistic care and other spiritually based practices when Western medicine failed. Many cultures worldwide frame the same diagnostic criteria called “schizophrenia” in the West very differently, and in a more positive light. Some traditional cultures in Africa, Australia and other parts of the world celebrate the symptoms as a gift for communicating with other realms.

Great leaders and great talent have also emerged from the minds of people with schizophrenia, such as soldier Joan of Arc, artist Vincent Van Gogh, mathematician John Nash and musician Brian Wilson. While schizophrenia can be a significant challenge for those affected and their loved ones, many are still able to live full, meaningful lives and have a positive impact on the world.

About us

The Sovereign Health Group provides specialized treatment for individuals with mental illness (including schizophrenia), substance use disorders and dual diagnosis. We use state-of-the-art diagnostic assessment and treatment to provide optimal long-term outcomes. For professionals, we offer online resources, continuing education events, webinars and fellowship opportunities. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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