Is there a link between Schizophrenia & Immunology?

Resident Science writer Ng Yi Min explores new research on this mental health condition.

Ng Yi Min
4th December 2017
By Marco Castellani (Flickr: Schizophrenia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Schizophrenia is a severe long-term mental disorder that causes a range of different psychological symptoms, which affects the way patients think and act. Patients with schizophrenia often experience both positive and negative changes in their senses, whereby positive changes refer to sharpened senses such as hallucinations and delusions; negative changes refer to dulled senses such as lack of motivation and being withdrawn.

“My greatest fear is this brain of mine….The worst thing imaginable is to be terrified of one’s own mind, the very matter that controls all that we are and all that we do and feel.”

“I heard people talking, but I did not grasp the meaning of the words. The voices were metallic, without warmth or colour. From time to time, a word detached itself from the rest. It repeated itself over and over in my head, absurd, as though cut off by a knife.”

“For about almost seven years—except during sleep—I have never had a single moment in which I did not hear voices. They accompany me to every place and at all times; they continue to sound even when I am in conversation with other people, they persist undeterred even when I concentrate on other things, for instance read a book or newspaper, play the piano, etc.; only when I am talking aloud to other people or to myself are they of course drowned by the stronger sound of the spoken word and therefore inaudible to me.”

By reading some of the many quotes from schizophrenic patients, one can begin to understand the helplessness and fears that they experienced daily, and feel the need to support and help them.

While the exact cause of schizophrenia is not known, most people believe that both genetic and environmental factors play important role in schizophrenia. Besides, stressful/traumatic events such as the death of a loved one can also trigger schizophrenia. Recently however, it was reported that in some patients, schizophrenia could be an autoimmune condition that mimic mental problems.

What role does immunology have in schizophrenia?

Professor Belinda Lennox, a clinical psychiatrist at Oxford University, has found that a sub-cohort of schizophrenic patients has pathogenic autoantibodies to some neuronal membrane proteins in their blood serum. These pathogenic autoantibodies are believed to originate from other autoimmune disorders such as arthritis. They moved and bound to receptors in the brain, affecting memory and triggering delusions and hallucinations in these patients. It is also reported that immunotherapy has been shown to improve/cure the condition of these patients as quoted ‘in patients that we’ve identified the antibody and we have treated, almost everybody has a dramatic, if not total, recovery’.

Similarly, Professor Oliver Howes, a professor of molecular psychiatry at the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences and a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London, together with his team have also previously shown evidence of abnormalities in immune activity in the brain. Through genetic studies, they have shown a correlation between changes in immune system genes to increased risk for schizophrenia.

This discovery has indeed shone some lights into a potential revolutionary treatment for patients with mental disorders resulting from autoimmunity.

In addition, other studies have also shown increased risk for mental disorders in patients with autoimmune disease. For example, diabetic patients are 65% more likely to develop dementia or quadruple greater decline in memory test performance in Alzheimer’s patients who suffered from regular infections during a six-month period compared with patients with the lowest infection levels.

While more studies are still needed to ascertain of the role our immunity plays in the pathogenesis of schizophrenia (and other mental disorders), this discovery has indeed shone some lights into a potential revolutionary treatment for patients with mental disorders resulting from autoimmunity.

While the society has greatly improved in minimising stigma and great advances have been made in treating mental disorders like schizophrenia, these patients still face little empathy or even sympathy from others. Hence, let us all work together to make this world a friendlier place for all.

And with this, I will conclude this article with yet another quote: “Don’t worry about walking a mile in my shoes, just try a day thinking in my head”.

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