Famine linked to schizophrenia

A study based on the 1959-61 famine in China has shown that babies born into starvation have more than double the risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.

Schizophrenia occurs worldwide in about 1% of the population. For individuals who receive poor fetal nutrition, the risk may be as much as 2.3%.

Researchers in Australia and China studied the incidence of schizophrenia among those born before, during and after the
1959-61 period of famine in the Chinese province of Anhui. Their findings, that rates of schizophrenia jumped 2.3 times, are consistent with a Dutch study that uncovered the same increase for children born during the war-time famine in Holland, from 1944-45. The Chinese study, however, is statistically significant because Anhui's population of nearly 65 million inhabitants is so large.

Scientists still don't understand what causes the increase. "We don't yet know what the component of the nutritional deficiency is, or what the biological mechanism is that takes place in the brain resulting from the deficiency, although pre-natal folate deficiency has been implicated in neural defects in the past," says Feng Zhang at Aberdeen University.

The question remains whether the cause is general lack of nutrition in the womb or the lack of one specific nutrient. It's possible that the gene for schizophrenia is switched "on" or "off" when a chemical group is taken away from an individual's DNA. For example, the lack of folate could interfere with DNA and increase the expression of the gene for schizophrenia.

This may explain why the mental illness survives from generation-to-generation around the world, says Zhang: "There may be an evolutionary advantage for schizophrenia genes during famine."

Schizophrenia remains one of the world's most mysterious mental disorders, difficult to diagnose and sucessfully treat.

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