November 03, 2006

Child Abuse and Mental Illness - Nature and Nurture

While researchers tell us that there is no conclusive research yet that directly links child abuse to schizophrenia, most schizophrenia researchers we have talked to believe that it is one type of trauma / stress (among many) that is likely a contributing factor in some percentage of people who develop schizophrenia.

New research now provides a unique look into what is believed to be the causal factors involved in child abuse and how nature and nurture interact to cause it, and reproduce such behaviors in multiple generations of a family.

The UK's New Scientist magazine reported today that:

Monkeys that are abused as infants develop a specific brain change that makes them more likely to mistreat their own offspring, a new study shows.

The findings may help explain why child abuse in humans often perpetuates from one generation to the next, the researchers say.

Dario Maestripieri at the University of Chicago in Illinois, US, and colleagues found that baby rhesus monkeys that endured high rates of maternal rejection and mild abuse in their first month of life produced less of the brain chemical serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety and depression and impulsive aggression in both humans and monkeys.

The researchers further reported that by analyzing the monkeys’ brain fluid it was revealed that those reared by abusive mothers or abusive foster mothers had 10% to 20% less serotonin than monkeys who had grown up without maternal abuse. This supports the idea that the decreased levels of in serotonin in the young brains results from mistreatment, rather than a genetic predisposition, says Dr. Maestripieri.

Independently, one schizophrenia hypothesis is that people with schizophrenia have chronically oversensitive neurons and thus are biologically prone to misperceptions and hallucinations. Serotonin is a brain neurotransmitter (a molecule that carries information between neurons) that normally plays an inhibitory role, so it is the reduced activity of serotonin that may lead to oversensitivity. This is one way in which the child abuse or neglect could (it is proposed) make a child more likely to develop schizophrenia.

The good news is that people can change their parenting behavior - with the proper therapy and training. The science of child development has advanced a great deal during the past decade - and there are many good books and videos (identified below) that can be used to educate people about parenting approaches that lower risk of mental illness in children. As one of the researchers noted:

"Even if abusive people are shown to have low levels of serotonin, this does not mean they cannot stop their abusive behaviour," he points out. "Biology is never an excuse for anything."

If someone had a childhood that was abusive, stressful or traumatic, its extremely important for these people to learn about the new science of childcare, and if necessary, get therapy for any disorders (anxiety/excessive worry, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, schizophrenia, etc.) so as to prevent the same stresses and trauma from being carried forward to the next generation.

Read the full story here: Child abuse: nature or nurture?

More Information: Epigenetics, Childcare and Schizophrenia

Trauma Link to Schizophrenia is Strengthened by New Research

A Healthy Family Social Environment May Reduce Schizophrenia Risk by 86% for High Genetic Risk Groups

Improving Baby Mental Health - New Program for Parents

Books on Childcare Approaches that May Lower Risk of Mental Illness


I know for a fact that diagnosed schizophrenia is very likely to be cured...and even if the patient recoveres he is not absolutely sane. My question is: The children who suffer from this disease have better chances of recovery, taking into account the fact that their body and mind aren't so mature?

Posted by: Opiate Detox at November 3, 2006 01:36 PM

Hi Opiate,

The researchers I've talked to suggest that there are two factors here... generally research suggests that the earlier that someone get schophrenia (i.e. the younger the person is when the symptoms first show up) the worse the long term outcome tends to be. But - a counter fact is that the sooner that someone gets treatment, the better the long term outcome. So - as in most cases, ... "it depends". Generally the outcome is not very good for people who are under the age of 13 who develop schizophrenia. However if the person is older than that, and gets early treatment - then the researchers tell me that the people tend to do better. These are all "generalities" - so it doesn't mean that for any one person that the outcome will be bad or good in these circumstance - these are just averages. Just as the average house price in the US may be $240,000 - that doesn't mean that any given house is likely to be worth $240,000.

Certainly - the brain is more modifiable when younger - so intensive treatment earlier is the best possible approach.

Posted by: szadmin at November 3, 2006 01:52 PM

Too bad they've yet to develop any effective treatments for the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. And even the medications they have don't always work against the positive symptoms.... and sometimes the meds end up making things much worse for the patient... and the side effects can be literally unbearable...

so too bad they haven't yet developed any effective treatments for schizophrenia....

Posted by: Cory Schulz at November 3, 2006 10:54 PM


I just had dinner with some schizophrenia researchers last night and they said that they are having some good results both with new psycho-social programs, as well as some new medications tha are not yet out - in the treatment of negative symptoms. These new therapies will likely be out in the next few years - so there are reasons for hope.

Posted by: szadmin at November 4, 2006 10:41 AM

Everyone has a role model such as there parents. There around all there life and grew up with. The mokey finding is something everyone is up with. I want to be like my parents.

Posted by: Josh at November 4, 2006 06:37 PM

while the basic principle of 'earlier treatment helps' is always true, it is possible that quite a few schizophrenics with childhood onset have more severe illness. the results with medication are most certainly better than the results if it was not treated, but MRI's and other diagnostic tools suggest that schizophrenic children have quite a tough time. these days, studies show it's very clear that not ALL schizophrenic children will have a much more severe illness, but it is also true that quite a few schizophrenic children still do simply have a more severe form of the illness.

it was always firmly stated before that childhood onset simply disrupts the learning process more, but i think there is more to it than that. i feel many childhood onset kids simply have a more severe illness.

as to there being no good treatments for negative symptoms - that's not true, as it is also not true that the current treatments for schizophrenia are all bad and offer no hope - that's false. many people do very well with current medications. we STILL need more and better options.

as for negative symptoms, we have several medications (abilify, geodon) and addon medications that help alot. there is reason for hope NOW. but we need more and better options and the future will bring that.

Posted by: slc2 at November 6, 2006 07:56 AM

I have strictly negative symptoms and I have tried both abilify and geodon and very quickly developed unbearable side effects and the medications didn't do much to help my situation.

There is reason for hope. But there is a general feeling by many psychiatrists and neurologists that the anti-psychotic meds are far from optimal in both their effectiveness and their side effects profiles. I'm sure that many people respond well to many medications and are able to go on to live relatively normal lives... unfortunately that isn't me...

Posted by: Cory Schulz at November 6, 2006 01:30 PM

you're one of the many people the researchers and doctors should be working hard for to improve things. i'm not sure they all always keep that in mind, but that's what we have to do, is keep the pressure up. keep pushing doctors for improvements, keep complaining, and don't give up. i'm sure that at the very least some improvements can be made even just with using current medications. i recently heard from a friend who had finally, in disgust, entered a medication study that had as one of their promised benefits, that they would work out a better medication plan for each person who came into the study dissatisfied. she called me a few days ago saying 'i feel better than i have in 12 years (since she became ill), i never thought it was possible'. don't ever give up. keep up the fight.

Posted by: slc2 at November 7, 2006 09:25 AM

i totally agree that abuse and a violent family can be a huge factor in one developing belief systems that lead to paranoid schizophrenia. i do not believe i was born with it as they say. 2nd Timothy 1:7

Posted by: Brandon at November 15, 2006 03:50 PM

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