What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a serious neurological disorder affecting 21 million people worldwide, according to the World Health organization. Characterized by hallucinations, difficulty thinking clearly and reasoning, unreasonable fears, lack of emotions and inappropriate reactions, it causes difficulty maintaining social relationships and work related tasks. Schizophrenia originates in the frontal lobe and hippocampus part of the brain. Using Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) and Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) machines, neuroscientists from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) have discovered that schizophrenics suffer from a loss of vital brain tissue. As much as ¼ of brain tissue, known as gray matter, responsible for processing emotion, sensory input, speech and memory is absent. There is a correlation between severity of symptoms and the amount of tissue loss.

The good news is that researchers believe that the brain damage may be reversible and the search for new medications capable of improving cognitive function is ongoing. However, despite these advances in research, there is still no definitive diagnostic test for schizophrenia. Instead, doctors diagnose the condition by matching positive and negative symptoms to a list of indicators. For this reason, a person with slowly advancing disease may suffer for years before diagnosis. Current treatment centers on the use of antipsychotic drugs that relieve the symptoms along with rehabilitation and counseling services.

Who Gets Schizophrenia?

Although anyone can get schizophrenia, certain groups of people are predisposed to it. On average, it is slightly more common in men than women. Onset typically begins around the age of 18 years in males and 25 years in females. While the affliction is very rare in children under the age of 12, it does occur. These cases have gained more recognition in recent years and research is ongoing. There is a definitive genetic link to the condition, but no single gene alone is responsible for the disorder. Rather, a combination of several genes working together is thought to be the cause of familial patterns of heredity.

A study from the University of Washington found that the risk of developing schizophrenia is twice as high for those that have a third generation relative with the disorder. A child born to parents with schizophrenia has over a thirty percent chance of developing it. However, the same study also showed that in identical twins, the risk is divided. One twin may develop it and the other may not, despite the fact that their genomes are the same. This is because environmental factors also play a role in determining who will develop the condition.

Is Schizophrenia Preventable?

There is no known preventative for schizophrenia, but there are steps a person can take to reduce overall risk. Scientists know that, much like diabetes, just having the gene combination does not mean a person will get the disease. Stressors in the early, formative years can make a brain more vulnerable to the condition. Environmental factors, such as stress and anxiety, illicit drug use, isolation, abuse, exposure to chemicals and others, increase risk later in life. Early intervention and good mental health practices, including learning healthy relationship and stress management skills and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, can lessen the risk of developing brain defects. 

Questions and Answers

Q: What are the first symptoms someone with schizophrenia may notice?

A: A few early symptoms include difficulty knowing the difference between dreams and reality, being afraid that someone or something is dangerous without just cause, the lack of emotional response when a situation would normally call for one, odd or erratic behaviors that can't be explained, and the use of odd words that have no context or related meaning. The disorder can also develop suddenly with full-blown hallucinations, delusions or catatonic behavior.

Q: Is there a cure for schizophrenia?

A: Technically, there is no cure for schizophrenia. However, it is highly treatable. With medical management, approximately fifteen percent of people treated will return to their previous level of functioning. In the remaining cases, it is possible to manage symptoms so that an individual achieves an acceptable quality of life and can function independently.

Q: Does schizophrenia get worse with age?

A: It can get worse with age, although this is highly dependent on many factors. Since the disorder causes degeneration of brain tissue, symptoms may worsen over time without treatment. Episodes may be longer and cognitive function may decline more rapidly, especially if diagnosed after the age of forty.

Q: What is the difference between Schizophrenia and Psychosis?

A: Psychosis refers to a collection of symptoms rather than a disease in and of itself. During a psychotic episode, a person loses the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Their thoughts and perceptions become erratic and abnormal. Many mental health disorders exhibit psychosis, with schizophrenia being just one of them.

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