Schizophrenia is a chronic, psychiatric disorder that affects a person’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. A person living with this disorder may experience periods in which they seem to have lost touch with reality. They may experience the world differently than people around them.
Researchers don’t know what exactly causes schizophrenia, but a combination of issues may play a role. Understanding the possible causes of schizophrenia can help clarify who might be at risk. It can also help you understand what — if anything — can be done to prevent this lifelong disorder.
One of the most significant risk factors for schizophrenia may be genes. This disorder tends to run in families. If you have a parent, sibling, or other close relative with the condition, you may have a higher risk of developing it, too.
However, researchers don’t believe a single gene is responsible for this disorder. Instead, they suspect a combination of genes can make someone more susceptible. Other factors, such as stressors, may be needed to “trigger” the disorder in people who are at a higher risk.
Studies on twins have shown that genes play an integral role, but they aren’t the only determining cause. Researchers found that if one identical twin sibling has schizophrenia, the other has a one in two chance of developing it. This remains true even if the twins are raised separately.
If a twin is nonidentical (fraternal) and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the other twin has a one in seven chance of developing it. In contrast, the risk for disease in the general population is 1 in 100.
If you’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, you may have subtle physical differences in your brain. But these changes aren’t seen in everyone with this disorder. They may also occur in people who don’t have a diagnosed mental disorder.
Still, the findings suggest that even minor differences in brain structure may play a role in this psychiatric disorder.
A series of complex interrelated chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, are responsible for sending signals between brain cells. Low levels or imbalances of these chemicals are believed to play a role in the development of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
Dopamine, in particular, seems to play a role in the development of schizophrenia. Researchers have found evidence that dopamine causes an overstimulation of the brain in people with schizophrenia, and may account for some of the symptoms of the condition.
Glutamate is another chemical that’s been implicated in schizophrenia. Evidence has pointed toward its involvement, however there are a number of limitations to this research.
Complications before and during birth may increase a person’s risk for mental health disorders, including schizophrenia. These complications include:
- low birth weight
- infection during pregnancy
- lack of oxygen during delivery (asphyxia)
- premature labor
- maternal obesity in pregnancy
Because of the ethics involved in studying pregnant women, many of the studies that have looked at the connection between prenatal complications and schizophrenia have been on animals.
Women with schizophrenia are at an increased risk for complications during pregnancy. It’s unclear if their children are at an increased risk for developing the condition because of genetics, pregnancy complications, or a combination of the two.
Using recreational drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, LSD, and amphetamines, doesn’t cause schizophrenia. However, research shows that use of these drugs may trigger symptoms of schizophrenia in people who are more at risk.
Because researchers don’t completely understand what causes schizophrenia, there’s no sure way to prevent it. But if you’ve been diagnosed with this disorder, sticking with your treatment plan can reduce the risk of relapse or worsening symptoms.
Likewise, if you know that you’re at an increased risk for the disorder — such as by a genetic link — you can avoid possible triggers or things that can cause symptoms of the disorder. Triggers may include:
- drug use
- chronic alcohol use
Symptoms fall into four categories:
- disorganization, or catatonic behaviors
Some of these symptoms are always present and occur even during periods of low disorder activity. Other symptoms only show up when there’s a relapse, or an increase in activity.
Positive symptoms may be a sign that you’re losing touch with reality:
These negative symptoms interrupt normal behaviors, such as:
- lack of motivation
- reduced expressions of emotions (“flat affect”)
- loss of pleasure in everyday activities
- difficulty concentrating
Cognitive symptoms impact memory, decision-making, and critical-thinking skills. They include:
- trouble focusing
- poor “executive” decision-making
- problems with using or recalling information immediately after learning it
Disorganization symptoms — or catatonic behaviors — are both mental and physical. They show a lack of coordination, such as:
- motor behaviors (uncontrolled body movements)
- speech difficulties
- memory recollection problems
- loss of muscle coordination, or being clumsy and uncoordinated
If you believe you or a loved one is showing signs of schizophrenia, it’s important to find adequate treatment. Keep these steps in mind as you seek out help or encourage someone else to find help.
- Remember that schizophrenia is a biological illness. Treating it is as important as treating any other illness.
- Find a support system you can rely on, or help your loved one find one they can tap into for guidance. This includes friends, family, colleagues, and healthcare providers.
- Check for support groups in your community. Your local hospital may host one, or they can help connect you to one.
- Encourage continuing treatment. Therapy and medications help people lead productive and rewarding lives, so you should encourage a loved one to continue treatment plans.
There’s no “cure” for schizophrenia. Instead, treatments focus on easing and eliminating symptoms. This disorder requires lifelong treatment.
Management decreases the risk of relapse or hospitalization. It can also make symptoms easier to handle and improve daily life.
Typical treatments for schizophrenia include:
- Antipsychotic medications. These medications affect brain chemistry. They help decrease symptoms by impacting the level of chemicals believed to be involved with the disorder.
- Psychosocial therapy. You can learn coping skills to help you manage some of the challenges this disorder causes. These skills can help to complete school, hold jobs, and maintain quality of life.
- Coordinated specialty care. This approach to treatment combines medication and psychosocial therapy. It also adds family integration, and education and employment counseling. This type of care aims to reduce symptoms, manage periods of high activity, and improve quality of life.
You’ll likely need a combination of treatments to manage this complex condition. You may also need to alter your treatment plan during different times in your life. Finding a doctor you trust is an important first step toward managing this condition.
Schizophrenia is a lifelong condition. However, you can have a successful, fulfilling life if you properly treat and manage its symptoms.
Recognizing strengths and abilities will help you find activities and careers that interest you. Finding support among family, friends, and professionals can help you reduce worsening symptoms and manage challenges.