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China Famine Study Links Schizophrenia to Malnutrition

August 23, 2005

A study of a famine in China more than 40 years ago, published in the August 3 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), has found that children born to severely malnourished women are more likely to develop schizophrenia.

The research strengthens evidence that environmental factors may trigger genetic predisposition to schizophrenia. Children born in southeast China during a 1959-1961 famine were twice as likely to develop the illness than those before or after those years. Read more…

The results are consistent with a previous study of a Dutch famine resulting from a Nazi food blockade in 1944-1945.

Schizophrenia afflicts approximately one percent of the world's population. Ethnic and cultural differences between the Chinese and Dutch peoples point to universal significance for the findings. From a public health perspective, the implications may be especially critical for developing areas of the world such as Africa, where starvation and malnutrition are common. However, the study does not explain how malnutrition affects brain development, nor whether a single nutrient, or those in all foods, increase the risk, which would be key to its application.

Nutrition is within the medical model of schizophrenia, focused on biochemical and structural processes in the brain. Researchers also have theorized that viruses -- such as measles and herpes -- may increase the risk of onset when they affect pregnant women.

Twenty years ago in Surviving Schizophrenia: A Family Manual, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey noted that pregnancy might be an important time for schizophrenia's development. Children who develop the disorder are lighter in birth weight, on average, than their brothers and sisters.

Nutritional deficiencies, Torrey observed, would be compatible with the beginnings of the disease prenatally or in early childhood. They also might help explain seasonality of births. Dietary deficiencies may be more common in certain months, affecting brain development of unborn children. In the Northern Hemisphere, studies have shown that up to 10 percent more people with schizophrenia are born in late winter or early spring than other times of the year.