Schizophrenia: Study Reveals Those Traumatized In Childhood Up To Fifty Times More Likely To Develop It

Cans Childhood Trauma Cause Schizophrenia?

I remember when I was doing my first degree in psychology at the University of London that, when we studied schizophrenia, in trying to explain its causes we concentrated largely upon examining genetic explanations and, also, explanations based upon the existence of individual differences in brain chemistry and brain biology.

More recently, however, evidence has been accumulating that if an individual suffers childhood trauma then this, too, puts him/ her at greater risk of developing this most debilitating of psychiatric conditions.

Indeed, a study at the University of Liverpool and Maastricht in the Netherlands lends support to this theory. The study looked at data from three groups of people

a) individuals who were known to have suffered childhood trauma who were followed up in their adult lives (the study was what is known as longitudinal and examined 30 years’ worth of data)

b) psychotic individuals who were asked about their childhood

c) randomly selected individuals (data obtained from this third group served as a comparison point against which to interpret the data generated from the above two groups). This is also known as the control group.

THE FINDINGS OBTAINED FROM THE STUDY:

– those who had suffered childhood trauma prior to the age of 16 were 3 times more likely to develop psychosis in adulthood than were the individuals from the group of randomly selected individuals (group ‘c’ above)

– the more serious the individuals’ experiences of childhood trauma were, the more likely they were to develop psychosis later on during their lives

– those who had suffered the most serious types of trauma were found to be up to 50 times more likely to go on to develop schizophrenia than individuals who had been randomly selected for the study

– different kinds of trauma resulted in the development of different types of psychiatric symptoms.  For example, those individuals who had spent significant amounts of time in children’s homes were particularly likely to develop symptoms of paranoia later on during their lives

IMPLICATIONS:

In the light of these findings, expert Professor Bengal stressed the importance that those who were responsible for diagnosing psychiatric patients should ask them about their childhood experiences as a matter of routine.

Professor Bengal also drew attention to the need for further research into the effects of childhood experiences on the physical developing brain (click here to view details of my book on this) and also into genetic factors that may help to explain why some individuals are more resilient to the adverse effects of childhood trauma than others.

Finally, he called for further research into why symptoms of trauma often do not appear in an individual until years after the traumatic experiences have taken place. For example, a person who suffered childhood trauma between the ages of, say, eight and twelve, may not display overt psychiatric symptoms caused by it until his/her twenties.

CHILDHOOD STRESSORS, SCHIZOPHRENIA, AND POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE SYMPTOMS:

Symptoms of schizophrenia can be split into two categories:

  • POSITIVE SYMPTOMS
  • NEGATIVE SYMPTOMS

POSITIVE SYMPTOMS OF SCHIZOPHRENIA INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING:

  • hallucinations (visual, auditory, tactile, and/or olfactory)
  • delusions (grandiose, erotomania, religious, persecutory, referential, and/or somatic)
  • impaired concentration
  • impaired thinking
  • movement disorders such as catatonia or repetitive movements

NEGATIVE SYMPTOMS OF SCHIZOPHRENIA INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING:

  • anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure)
  • alogia (difficulty talking, also referred to as ‘poverty of speech’)
  • speech problems (e.g. hardly ever speaking)
  • extreme social withdrawal
  • extreme apathy
  • impaired ability to cope with everyday life
  • avolition (lack of motivation to complete tasks e.g. paying bills)
  • lack of self-care (e.g. not washing, shaving, or brushing g teeth)

HOW DO THE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE SYMPTOMS OF SCHIZOPHRENIA RELATE TO CHILDHOOD TRAUMA?

A study conducted by Gallagher et al. (2013) found that:

The positive symptoms of schizophrenia are associated with having suffered childhood abuse (the trauma the child experienced was actively inflicted)

The negative symptoms of schizophrenia are associated with having suffered childhood neglect

From these findings, the authors inferred that the type of stressor the schizophrenic individual experienced as a child in part explains the type of symptoms they develop in relation to their schizophrenia. However, they also pointed out that more research was necessary for this area of study.

PARANOID DELUSIONS AND HALLUCINATIONS:

Bentall et al (2012) carried out research suggesting that sexual abuse in childhood was particularly associated with hallucinations in those who went on to develop schizophrenia whereas those who had been brought up in care homes and went on to develop the disease were particularly likely to develop paranoid delusions.

REFERENCES:

P. Bentall, S. Wickham, M. Shevlin, F. Varese. Do Specific Early-Life Adversities Lead to Specific Symptoms of Psychosis? A Study from the 2007 The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2012; DOI: 10.1093/schbul/sbs049

Gallagher BJ 3rd, Jones BJ. Childhood stressors and symptoms of schizophrenia. Clin Schizophr Relat Psychoses. 2013 Oct;7(3):124-30. doi: 10.3371/CSRP.GAJO.020113. PMID: 23395837.

 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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