About Mental Illness >> Schizophrenia
Symptoms & Causes
The possible symptoms.
The symptoms appear gradually over time, usually beginning when a person is in adolescence or young adulthood. Tenseness, inability to sleep or concentrate and social withdrawal often mark the initial onset of the disease.
More serious symptoms emerge as the illness progresses, including nonsensical statements and unusual perceptions of common experience. People suffering from acute schizophrenia may quickly change from topic to topic with no relation to each other, or make up completely new words or sounds.
People suffering from schizophrenia often believe that someone is spying on them, or that someone can "hear" their thoughts. Many believe that others are trying to insert thoughts into their minds and control their actions. They may hear voices that insult or command. Some people might believe they are the President, or that they can travel back and forward in time. People suffering from schizophrenia can, at times, appear relatively normal. But during the acute or "psychotic" phase, the same person may suffer from hallucinations, delusions, or disconnected speech and thinking.
The acute psychotic symptoms usually lessen during a period called the residual stage or remission. When they return, it's called relapse. Other less acute symptoms, like social withdrawal and blunted emotions may continue through remission and relapse.
It's also important to note that while schizophrenia has a recognizable and specific set of symptoms, this illness varies widely in its severity from person to person, and from one time period to another.
The possible causes.
The exact cause of schizophrenia remains unknown, but a number of theories are being researched to identify the root causes of the disease.
The research so far supports the conclusion that people inherit a genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia, which can be brought on by outside events such as a viral infection that changes the body's chemistry, a highly stressful situation in adult life, or a combination of each.
But unlike eye or hair color, the susceptibility to schizophrenia isn't inherited directly. Like many genetically related illnesses, schizophrenia appears when the body is undergoing the hormonal and physical changes of adolescence.
Some theories suggest that brain of a person with schizophrenia is more prone to be affected by certain biochemicals; others speculate that it produces inadequate or excessive amounts of biochemicals needed to maintain mental health.
Genetic triggers could alter the physical development of part of the brain, or could cause problems with the way the person's brain screens stimuli, so that the person with schizophrenia is overwhelmed by sensory information.
Schizophrenia is similar to "autoimmune" illnesses -- disorders like multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gherig's disease.) These diseases are caused when the body's immune system attacks itself. Like these diseases, schizophrenia is not diagnosed at birth but develops during young adulthood. Also, like other autoimmune diseases, it fluctuates through remission and relapse, and it appears more commonly in families where it has already been diagnosed.
Some scientists speculate that viral infections play a key role, along with the genetic makeup of the body. Genes determine the body's reaction to infection. But instead of stopping when the infection is over, the genes may be telling the body's immune system to continue attacking a specific part of the body - the brain.
Finally, a home or social environment marked with emotional or physical abuse and severe poverty may play a role in the onset of schizophrenia, but only in those with genetic vulnerability.
Most psychiatrists believe that schizophrenia is caused by this group of "stress factors" that include a genetic predisposition and environmental factors such as viral infection, as well as serious stress in the home or social environment.
Psychiatrists also believe these stress factors can often be offset with "protective factors." That's when the person with schizophrenia receives proper medication, and finds help in building a stable network of family and friends, can live with some degree of independence, and can maintain steady and satisfying employment.