What Causes Schizophrenia?

While it’s unclear what causes schizophrenia, researchers have some ideas.

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Schizophrenia is a psychiatric disorder that influences an individual’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Due to these influences, people with schizophrenia often feel out of touch with reality – as though their experience is not comprehensible to those around them. ¹

Unfortunately, researchers still don’t know what causes schizophrenia. Luckily, they have some idea as to what plays a role.

By understanding these causes, we have the potential to understand who’s most at risk of schizophrenia. Not to mention, we can prevent the mental health condition going untreated for long periods.

Throughout this article, we’re going to observe what we know about the causes of schizophrenia. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

1.) Problems During Pregnancy or Birth

Pregnancy and/or birth complications are believed to put newborns at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, later in life. ² While it’s unclear exactly which complications can cause schizophrenia, it’s generally agreed the following can have a negative effect on mental health:

  • Asphyxia (absence of oxygen during delivery)
  • Low birth weight
  • Maternal obesity diagnosis during pregnancy
  • Pregnancy infection
  • Premature labor

Due to moral standards in concern to studies involving pregnant women, there haven’t been any human tests that look into a connection between these complications and schizophrenia. All studies currently available have only been done on animals. ³

However, we do know that women who are diagnosed with schizophrenia are much more likely to have pregnancy or birth complications. ⁴

2.) Childhood Trauma

While this isn’t the case for everyone who experiences childhood trauma, some people have developed schizophrenia. Usually, those with the condition will experience hallucinations that are similar to the abuse and/or neglect they had gone through as a child. ⁵

Beyond child abuse, it’s also been found that children who experience death or separation of either parent can also develop schizophrenia. ⁶

Of course, as with most research concerning schizophrenia, there’s a lack of clarity in concerns to the condition and childhood trauma. Some believe childhood trauma can cause schizophrenia while others believe it can trigger schizophrenia in those who already have it from other causes.

What is understood is such experiences can also lead to other mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

3.) Brain Structural Changes

Some researchers have noticed that people with schizophrenia have a different brain structure than most people. However, this difference isn’t noticed in everyone with the mental health condition. ⁷

But it’s generally agreed among scientists that people with even slight differences in brain structure most likely struggle with a mental health disorder.

4.) Brain Chemical Changes

What’s better understood than brain structure are brain chemicals. These chemicals are better known as neurotransmitters and send signals between various brain cells.

When these neurotransmitters are either imbalanced or reduced, the risk rises for someone to experience a mental disorder.

One of the most notable neurotransmitters, in terms of schizophrenia, is dopamine. It’s been found that people with schizophrenia tend to react to dopamine with overstimulation. It’s believed this brain reaction is responsible for some of the symptoms associated with the psychiatric illness. ⁸

Another brain chemical that has a connection with schizophrenia is glutamate. Unfortunately, only so much is known about glutamate. ⁹

5.) Current or Previous Drug Use

It needs to be noted that drug use itself doesn’t cause schizophrenia. However, research has found that using certain drugs can trigger symptoms of schizophrenia in those who are already at risk. ¹⁰

Some drugs that have been found to trigger schizophrenia include:

  • Amphetamines (i.e. Ritalin, methamphetamine)
  • Cannabis
  • Cocaine
  • Psychedelics (i.e. LSD, psilocybin mushrooms)

Of course, this shouldn’t take away from the fact that other drugs, such as alcohol or opioids, may trigger schizophrenia.

6.) Genetics

The most notable cause of schizophrenia is genetics. Medical professionals have noticed that mental illness has a tendency to run in families. This means if you have a parent, sibling, or other close relatives with schizophrenia, then you’re at a higher risk of having the condition yourself.

However, just because someone in your family has schizophrenia, doesn’t mean you necessarily have it too. Researchers have noticed that people with the condition tend to have a combination of related genes rather than a single gene.

Not to mention, there are a number of other factors that play a role. Most significantly, stress which can trigger the condition.

There have been a few studies on twins that have found that while genes play a fundamental role, they aren’t the only determining factor. These studies discovered that if one identical twin sibling is diagnosed with schizophrenia, then the other twin has a 50% chance of developing it themselves. ¹¹ This risk doesn’t change even if the twins grow up in separate households.

It’s worthy to note that if a twin is nonidentical, they have a much less like chance (1 in 8). In concerns with the total population, it’s been found that each of us has a 1% chance of developing schizophrenia.

Is It Possible to Prevent Schizophrenia?

As mentioned, researchers still don’t entirely know what causes schizophrenia. With that, there is currently no understanding in the medical community as to how to prevent it.

However, it’s worthy to note, following a treatment plan upon diagnosis will help in decreasing the chances of symptoms worsening and/or relapse.

Not to mention, if you’ve already been diagnosed or know you are at a higher risk of schizophrenia (for example, if you have a family member with the condition), there are some things you can do to prevent schizophrenic triggers.

By understanding your triggers, you can identify when schizophrenia may appear. Potential triggers may include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Drug abuse
  • Stress

Keep in mind, you may experience triggers that aren’t as common as those mentioned above and may be unique to you.

How to Identify Schizophrenia

The best way to identify whether or not you’re struggling with schizophrenia is by checking your symptoms. Most people experience symptoms between the ages of 16 and 30. It’s important to note that it’s extremely rare for children to experience symptoms.

Schizophrenia symptoms fall into four unique categories. You may experience various symptoms from various categories. Or, you may just feel a selection of symptoms from one category.

Here are the most common symptoms for schizophrenia:

Positive

Positive symptoms can be identified from a loss of sense with reality:

  • Delusions
  • Dysfunctional thoughts
  • Hallucinations

Negative

Negative symptoms are associated with an interference with standard day-to-day behaviors:

  • Decrease in emotions and facial/body expressions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of enjoyment in everyday activities
  • Loss of motivation

Cognitive

Cognitive symptoms are categorized by the way they influence critical-thinking, decision-making, and memory. These symptoms include:

  • Complications when using or remembering information right after learning it
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making “executive” decisions

Disorganization

Disorganization symptoms are characterized by a lack of coordination in both mental and physical conduct. Some examples include:

  • Difficulties with communication
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Loss of motor skills (i.e. uncontrollable body movements)

When Should You Seek Help for Schizophrenia

If you believe you have identified schizophrenia in yourself or a loved one, it’s vital to seek medical treatment as soon as possible. The sooner you’re able to treat the condition, the better chance you have at overcoming symptoms.

If you are trying to help someone who you believe is struggling with schizophrenia, there are a few things you can mention to them for further encouragement to seek help.

The first is to remind your loved one that they are struggling with a biological disorder. In other words, an illness which can and should be treated as any other mental or physical illness.

Secondly, you’ll want to develop a support system for your loved one. A network of people in which they can trust to both speak to and gain guidance from. This support system can be made up of can be family, friends, and colleagues. Not to mention, most community have support groups for mental illness. Be sure to check in with your local medical facility to learn more about what’s in your area.

Finally, make sure to always encourage treatment. Through treatment, your loved one has their best chance at recovering from schizophrenia. Though medications and therapies may not be the easiest to continue with, it’s vital they do so.

Final Word

Unfortunately, schizophrenia is a lifelong medical condition. However, through treatment and identifying both your symptoms and triggers, it is possible to overcome schizophrenia.

We hope this article has brought you a little closer to this understanding. If you feel you are in need of help, we highly suggest reaching out to those who know you best.

Your Questions

Still have questions about what causes schizophrenia?

We invite you to ask them in the comment’s section below. If you have any further advice to offer – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ National Institute of Mental Health: Schizophrenia

² International review of psychiatry (Abingdon, England): Childbirth and mental disorders

³ frontiers in Neuroscience, Neuroendocrine Science: Paternal complications and schizophrenia: involvement of the immune system

⁴ Oxford Academic: Schizophrenia Bulletin: Obstetric Complications as Risk Factors for Schizophrenia Spectrum Psychoses in Offspring of Mothers With Psychotic Disorder

⁵ Journal of Neuropsychiatry: Environmental risk factors of schizophrenia: implications for prevention

⁶ National Library of Medicine: Childhood Parental Loss and Schizophrenia

⁷ Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry: Structural brain changes in schizophrenia at different stages of the illness

⁸ Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry: Is schizophrenia a dopamine supersensitvity psychotic reaction?

⁹ Journal of Psychopharmacology: Glutamate and dopamine in schizophrenia

¹⁰ Turkish Neuropsychiatric Society: Prevalence of Substance Use in Patients Diagnosed with Schizophrenia

¹¹ The Psychiatric clinics of North America (HHS Public Access): The Role of Genetics in the Etiology of Schizophrenia

2 comments on “What Causes Schizophrenia?”

    1. While I wouldn’t say “everything” is a suspect, there are definitely a lot of open-ended suspects in terms of the etiology. Personally, I think genetics and environment play the largest roles – for example, I believe there was a study that found children who grow up in more urban areas are more at risk of developing schizophrenia.

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