What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia affects one person in a hundred at some point in their lives. The illness usually starts in the teenage years or twenties, and alters the person's experience and interpretation of the world. This may lead to delusions – strongly held false beliefs. Experience of hallucinations (particularly hearing voices) is a common experience, but disjointed and hard to follow thoughts, personality change, absence of emotion and depression can occur as well.
What causes schizophrenia?
The causes of schizophrenia are not clear. Stress and drugs such as cannabis and other risk factors can trigger symptoms of schizophrenia in some people. It can also run in families. The symptoms seem to indicate an imbalance in the actions of two brain chemicals: dopamine and serotonin. Scientists think that a malfunction of neurons in the brain areas that deal with emotions, memory and planning (the limbic system and frontal lobes) may be to blame. Scientists hope that identifying genes that predispose people to schizophrenia will help find treatments.
Can we treat schizophrenia?
Traditional antipsychotic drug treatments for schizophrenia block receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. They are effective in relieving hallucinations and delusions, but have little effect on other symptoms: lack of motivation, tiredness and depression. Newer drugs, which act at several receptor sites, including those for serotonin and dopamine, seem to be effective in treating these symptoms as well, and have fewer unpleasant side effects. Schizophrenia can also be successfully treated by a psychological therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy.