Hearing voices no one else can hear. Hallucinations. Extreme paranoia. Delusional thinking. Agitated movements. Attention, memory and decision-making difficulties.
All of these are symptoms of schizophrenia, a severe, debilitating disorder that affects approximately 1 percent of the population. For sufferers, every day is a struggle as they try to maintain a connection with reality, regulate their emotions and manage everyday tasks.
While schizophrenia is a serious disorder, many patients can manage their symptoms with medication and therapy. Medicines like Aripiprazole or Seroquel are crucial in maintaining normal function. Yet, a growing number of researchers, are turning their attention to the suspected causes of schizophrenia with an eye toward developing ways of preventing the disease from taking hold — or at least, limiting its severity.
Over the past few decades, scientists have developed several theories about the causes of schizophrenia. Among them include:
Genetics. More than 10 percent of schizophrenics have relatives with the disease. Those with a schizophrenic parent or sibling — particularly a twin — have the greatest risk, while those with a second-degree relative also have an increased risk. Scientists have been unable to isolate a specific gene that leads to schizophrenia, but note patients usually tend to have genetic mutations. Some researchers also speculate that schizophrenia may also be related to a problem with the gene that creates certain brain chemicals. When that gene malfunctions, the chemicals are not in proper balance and the disorder occurs.
Brain structure. In short, the brains of schizophrenics look different from those of healthy individuals. The ventricles, or fluid-filled cavities in the center of the brain, are larger in people with schizophrenia, and there may be less gray matter. In addition, scientists have found differences in the brain cells of schizophrenics that most likely occurred before birth as well as chemical differences.
Environmental factors. Research is still needed to determine ifenvironmental factors can actually initially cause schizophrenia (some evidence suggests brain trauma, for example, could contribute to the disease) but there is no doubt that environment can trigger symptoms. Emotional trauma, stress, exposure to viruses while in utero and even poor nutrition have been linked as suspected causes of schizophrenia.
While there is still work to do in terms of pinpointing the specific reasons for schizophrenia, the fact that major causes have been narrowed down to specific genetic, structural and environmental factors has given some health care providers and researchers hope for someday being able to prevent the disease or at least most of the symptoms.
Awareness Equals Prevention
It’s very rare someone develops schizophrenia without warning. Again, the majority of schizophrenics have a close family member with the disease. Using advanced genetic testing models, scientists can now create more detailed DNA maps to identify the potential risk for the disease at a very young age. With this information, they are looking to develop treatment, perhaps in the form of a vaccine or other drug treatment, which would “counteract” the genetic mutation.
Until such treatment can be developed, health care providers are focusing on the environmental aspects of schizophrenia. While maintaining a healthy environment will do little to counteract problems in brain structure, families who understand their genetic risk can take steps to reduce the trauma that leads to symptomatic behavior. Among the interventions recommended by health professionals are:
Adequate prenatal care. Poor nutrition, exposure to viruses such as influenza and drug use have all been linked to increased risk of schizophrenia.
Family therapy and intervention. One study of adopted children showed that among children who have genetic mutations associated with schizophrenia, those who lived in high stress environments (such as regular parental arguments) had a much higher incidence of schizophrenic episodes.
Avoidance of traumatic events. There has been some evidence linking head trauma to schizophrenia. This means taking precautions to avoid head trauma — like wearing helmets while riding bikes — particularly in those with genetic mutations.
Substance abuse counseling. Studies show that people with schizophrenia are more likely to have substance abuse issues than those who don’t have the disease. In addition, drugs and alcohol can lessen the effectiveness of medication. It’s important to monitor substance use among those who have a propensity toward schizophrenia and take steps to prevent full-scale addiction.
Eventually, researchers hope to pinpoint exactly what causes schizophrenia and develop an effective means to stop it from developing before it becomes a debilitating disease. In the meantime, health care providers are focused on identifying risk factors, and recommending genetic testing and counseling to those who may have a greater likelihood of developing the disease. In time, this early intervention, paired with effective medications from a Canada pharmacy and greater awareness, will make the disease far less life-changing, or even eradicate it altogether.