Malnourishment-Schizophrenia Link

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answers questions from reporters on board his plane returning to the United States, Dec. 10, 2010, shortly after departing from Abu Dhabi.
AP Photo
A study of a famine in China more than 40 years ago found that children born to severely malnourished women are more likely to develop schizophrenia.

The research bolsters the evidence that environmental factors can trigger the devastating mental illness.

Compared with children born before or after the 1959-61 famine, those born during the disaster faced double the risk of becoming schizophrenic later on.

The results are nearly identical to a previous study of a famine in Holland resulting from a Nazi food blockade toward the end of World War II.

"Since the two populations are ethnically and culturally distinct, the processes involved may apply in all populations undergoing famine," the authors said.

Lead author Dr. David St. Clair of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, conducted the study with researchers from China. Their findings appear in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study supports the theory that schizophrenia is caused by a genetic predisposition influenced by environmental triggers that disturb the developing fetal brain — in this case, nutritional deficiencies.

And that raises the possibility that preventing starvation and malnutrition could head off some cases, said Richard Neugebauer, a schizophrenia researcher at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who was not involved in the study.

Neugebauer said in an accompanying editorial that the study's similarity to the earlier Dutch findings is remarkable given the differences in the two populations.

Still, Neugebauer said, the new research leaves unanswered exactly how nutritional deficiencies disturb fetal brain development to the point of increasing the risk of schizophrenia.