Is schizophrenia caused by a virus?
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08-26-16 Category: Mental Health, Research, Schizophrenia


Schizophrenia is a complex, chronic mental illness that distorts thoughts, emotions and behavior. Hearing voices, seeing things that aren’t there, having false beliefs and speaking in a disorganized way are common manifestations of schizophrenia. Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, poor memory, flat affect, apathy and trouble completing tasks.

Schizophrenia affects approximately 1 percent of the population and tends to run in families. Those with a first degree relative with the illness have a 10 percent chance of developing it. Identical twins have a 50 percent chance of developing schizophrenia if their twin develops it.

Diagnosis is made between age 12 and 40, but symptoms usually begin in adolescence or young adulthood. Early diagnosis and treatment is associated with better outcomes over the lifespan. Treatment consists of education, psychotherapy, and antipsychotic medication.

The source of schizophrenia

Historically, Schizophrenia has been attributed to a multitude of causes, ranging from bad mothering to microwave technology to demonic possession. Contemporary medicine generally considers it to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Despite genomic sequencing of family members, no single genetic marker has been established. Rather, the many genes that determine neurological development and function are said to carry the predisposition to the illness. The predisposition combined with prenatal infection/starvation, stress/trauma or substance use cause schizophrenia.

Recently, scientists have been exploring infectious triggers of schizophrenia. Several viruses appear to play a role. A 2013 study found that when babies with a certain gene variant were exposed to cytomegalovirus in utero, they had a five times greater chance for developing schizophrenia. Another virus, HERV-W has also been implicated as well as the influenza virus.

Other microbes have also been linked to schizophrenia, including gut bacteria and the toxoplama gondii parasite.

Some studies examined prenatal exposure to pathogens, in which case there is some consensus that the mother’s inflammatory immune reaction to the infection is what activates the predisposing genes so that schizophrenia develops later in the child’s life.

Infection during childhood and even adulthood has also been explored, and inflammation does appear to play a role. It seems that the inflammation early in life primes the nervous system to develop abnormally. Specific mechanisms, such as abnormal glutamate signaling, are being explored. Hopefully, by gaining understanding of the specific mechanisms involved, targeted interventions can be developed to prevent or effectively treat schizophrenia.

Hospitalization is sometimes necessary for people with schizophrenia, particularly during psychotic episodes. Hospitalization provides safety for those who might be a threat to themselves or others as well as provide an opportunity to adjust medications in a monitored environment. Quality inpatient care also provides education and individual, group, and family psychotherapy.

Sovereign Health of California specializes in the treatment of  individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders and dual diagnosis. We combine the most accurate and effective approaches to diagnostic assessment and treatment, providing optimal long-term outcomes. Comprehensive treatment includes regular exercise and outdoor experiences, such as hiking, yoga, and equine therapy. Our ongoing continuing care program provides the support patients need to remain free from addiction and recover from all of its consequences. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, 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. Sovereign Health 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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