Schizophrenia is a type of mental illness that causes a chronic and rarely self-resolving breakdown in the relationship between thoughts, behavior, emotions and effective cognitive functionality. Though less than 1% of the population suffers from this still incurable illness, its onset is especially prevalent among adolescents and young adults.
Millions of sufferers live with the disease worldwide with varying degrees of life quality, depending largely on available treatment options social support and to a lesser extent, disease progression.
Due to the widespread media attention given to schizophrenia by literature, popular culture and film, it is one of the best known mental illnesses in the world. Despite this, many people don’t have a complete understanding of Schizophrenia’s symptoms or even more importantly, its causes and risk factors.
This overview will try to explain risk factors and causes in particular, in an effort to clarify and to dispel certain fears that might not be justified if you suspect that someone you love or yourself may be at risk of this disorder.
A Brief Overview of Schizophrenia Symptoms
Schizophrenia may present itself through a range of symptoms that can accrue either gradually or rapidly form. They can also wax and wane over the course of the illness depending on treatment success or non-treatment factors as well in some cases. The most common symptoms of this disease include:
- Abnormally disorganized thinking
- Depressive periods,
- Active hallucinations
- Unusual and disordered motor behavior
- Negative symptoms of near complete disregard for normal daily functions such as bathing, emotional engagement, social activity and social interaction
Adolescents who present with schizophrenia symptoms also often demonstrate onset of the disease by withdrawing from family and social life, neglecting their academic performance and becoming severely depressed or irritable. Beyond these main symptoms, the disease can progress in extremely complex and variable ways.
Causes and Risk Factors for Schizophrenia
The bottom line in schizophrenia research is that even expert researchers don’t yet know exactly what causes some people to develop the disease while others don’t. They also don’t fully understand the factors that make disease progression worsen or improve in sufferers.
However, an enormous amount of clinical study over the decades has tremendously improved understanding to the point where certain risk factors and possible causes for schizophrenia can be identified. The following are the best known and most widely recognized causes and risk factors known today:
Despite the concrete cause of schizophrenia being unknown, the following risk factors have been strongly identified with the disease. No one of them or even all of them together in any way guarantee a manifestation of the disease in someone but they are associated with an elevated risk of disease onset.
Genetic risk: One of the single most evident schizophrenia risk factors known today is hereditary genetics. In other words, if one member of a family has previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the odds of another blood-related member of that same family being diagnosed are higher than average. The level of risk goes up with the closeness of a previously diagnosed family member.
In other words, if a parent has been diagnosed with the disease, the chances of their child having an onset of schizophrenia are higher than they would be for that child if only one of their cousins has been previously diagnosed. Despite this, schizophrenia is not considered a genetic disease, simply because there is no known single gene or specifically identified gene combination that’s been shown to cause it.
Environmental factors: While the possible environmental causes of schizophrenia are nebulous and ambiguous, there is a definite body of evidence that shows their relevance in some cases. This is a quality that the disease shares with many other conditions.
One major possible environmental trigger for the illness is viral infections. Exposure to certain viruses that are known to attack parts of the brain either rapidly or slowly has been associated with schizophrenic onset. Viruses that infect individuals and then stay dormant for years or gradually alter brain function in certain ways are considered to be possible culprits for schizophrenia. A notable non-viral infectious agent that’s also suspected of contributing to schizophrenic onset is the parasite toxoplasmosis gondii.
Exposure to toxins is also an environmental factor that’s strongly suspected of having a role in eventual onset of schizophrenia. Most notably, if an individual is exposed to certain toxins during fetal development, infancy or childhood, it might be tied to later onset of the illness. Among the most likely toxin culprits for the disease is lead, which has been found in children’s toys, paint, drinking water and sometimes in the surrounding environmental of places where people live.
Lifestyle Factors: On a final note, while the connection between schizophrenia and lifestyle factors is extremely correlational and ambiguous, there is evidence that severe and persistent stress during early development can cause psychosis-related illnesses including schizophrenia. This might apply particularly to cases of intense traumas, major sentimental losses, abuse or sexual abuse during the early stages of development in children and adolescents. On the other hand, many, many people who have suffered these traumas even to a severe degree never go on to develop schizophrenic symptoms later in life.
Within the brain itself, certain factors have been known to cause the onset of schizophrenia, or at least be present in an overwhelmingly large percentage of people who have the illness. These are the most commonly seen:
Biochemical changes: The way in which neurons communicate due to their biochemical context has been seen to change in schizophrenia sufferers. Studies have shown that imbalances in dopamine function are a strong possible explanation for schizophrenia. Dopamine over-activity in particular has been seen to cause symptom deterioration and drugs that decrease dopamine levels have been seen to improve manifestations of schizophrenic psychosis. On the other hand, drugs that increase dopaminergic activity seem to worsen symptoms.
Brain structure changes: Studies have also shown that as many as half of all examined patients with schizophrenia show signs of abnormally altered brain structure. Some of these changes in the brain include decreases in the volume of certain brain structures such as the temporal lobe, thalamus and prefrontal cortex; overall decreases in brain size and also ventricular dilations. However, some or all of these changes don’t always present in schizophrenia patients and they’re not unique to people with the condition.
Brain function changes: A majority of neuroimaging studies for brain structure and functioning have detected that schizophrenia patients show decreases in prefrontal cortex function. This is a part of the brain where reasoning ability is formed and this so-called hyofrontality is one of the most widely seen biological brain markers of schizophrenia found to-date.
The single most important thing to know about schizophrenia is that the disease, while incurable for now, is highly treatable. Quality of life for people treated carefully and with determination can improve enormously and productively. Furthermore, many schizophrenia patients who develop within a nurturing, understanding environment of family and loved ones who do their best to help in dealing with the illness can go onto living full lives in terms of personal relationships, academic and professional development and personal pleasures.
If you’re worried that you or someone you love may be at risk of schizophrenia or in the initial stages of illness development, first seek professional help in ruling out a multitude of far more likely lesser causes of many schizophrenic symptoms. The mental health professionals at Acera Health can not only help in diagnosing possible onset, they can also guide you and your family through a range of treatment options that can and usually do help tremendously.