Schizophrenia Research Forum - A Catalyst for Creative Thinking

Brown AS. The environment and susceptibility to schizophrenia. Prog Neurobiol. 2011 Jan 1 ; 93(1):23-58. Pubmed Abstract

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Related News: Research Roundup —The Tapestry of Environmental Influences in Psychosis

Comment by:  John McGrath, SRF Advisor
Submitted 5 November 2010
Posted 5 November 2010

The large study from Nuevo and colleagues is very thought provoking. There was substantial between-site variation in response to various psychosis-screening items. Assuming that endorsement of these items is a mix of: 1) "true" psychotic-like experiences, 2) "true" responses that are understandable from the perspective of local cultures and beliefs, and 3) innocent misinterpretations of the questions, why is there such marked variation? For example, why do 46 percent of respondents from Nepal endorse at least one psychotic-like experience and a third report auditory hallucinations?

It seems self-evident that populations with strong religious and/or cultural beliefs related to psychotic-like experiences might endorse psychosis-screening items more readily (type 2 in the above list). But could it be feasible that these same populations might also “kindle” psychotic experiences in vulnerable people? This notion is pure speculation, but we should remain mindful that dopaminergic pathways related to psychosis are vulnerable to the process of endogenous sensitization (Laruelle, 2000).

What does it mean to be a member of a cultural group that is more “prone” to psychotic-like experiences? Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist based at Stanford University, has examined individuals attending evangelical churches who “hear” the voice of God during prayer (Luhrmann et al., 2010). The vignettes suggest that some individuals reported more “hearing the voice of God” after improving their prayer skills. Practice makes perfect, but could it also kindle pathways related to schizophrenia?

Regardless of the underlying mechanisms, understanding variations in these symptoms is a fascinating topic worthy of more multidisciplinary research.


Laruelle M. The role of endogenous sensitization in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia: implications from recent brain imaging studies. Brain Res Brain Res Rev. 2000;31(2-3):371-84. Abstract

Luhrmann TM, Nusbaum H, Thisted R. The absorption hypothesis: learning to hear God in evangelical Christianity. American Anthropologist. 2010;112 (1):66-78.

View all comments by John McGrath

Related News: Research Roundup —The Tapestry of Environmental Influences in Psychosis

Comment by:  Tanya Luhrmann
Submitted 12 November 2010
Posted 12 November 2010

It seems to me that there may be two different patterns that show up in these large epidemiological studies: the psychotic continuum and phenomena associated with absorption. Absorption is basically a capacity for/interest in being caught up in your imagination. It is associated with hypnotizability and dissociation, but not identical to them (Tellegen and Atkinson, 1974).

In my own work on evangelical Christianity, I identify a pattern in which people report hallucination-like phenomena that are rare, brief, and not distressing (as opposed to the pattern associated with psychotic disorder, in which the hallucinations are often frequent, extended, and distressing). Those who report hearing God’s voice audibly or seeing the wing of an angel are also more likely to score highly on the Tellegen absorption scale (Luhrmann et al., 2010). This relationship between unusual experiences and absorption also shows up in a significant relationship between absorption and the Posey-Loesch hearing voices scale when these scales are given to undergraduates. Among undergraduates, the rates for hallucination-like phenomena are also consistently far higher than the Nuevo paper reports, perhaps because neither the absorption scale nor the Posey-Loesch scale seems to probe for pathology (Luhrmann, forthcoming).

I am not the only one to have found a significant association between unusual sensory experiences and absorption. Aleman and Laroi (2008) report that a handful of other researchers have also found significant correlations between hallucination scales and the absorption scale. As a result of this work, I think that there may be different pathways to hallucination-like phenomena—some pathological, others less so.

Yet, I also wonder whether there is indeed something like “priming” psychosis, as John suggested. This would arise if there were some looseness in the relationship between psychosis and dissociation, which there appears to be. At least that's the way I interpret some of the phenomena that Romme and Escher (1993) report. If there is some kind of loose relationship, it would suggest that someone could have an absorption/dissociation response to trauma that would look psychotic; it might also suggest that an intensely absorbing negative imaginative experience (being pursued by demons, e.g.) might contribute to a vulnerable person exhibiting more psychotic-like symptoms.

How would we begin to pull this apart?


Aleman A, Laroi F. Hallucinations: The science of idiosyncratic perception. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2008.

Luhrmann TM. When God speaks back. New York: Knopf, forthcoming.

Luhrmann TM, Nusbaum H, Thisted R. The absorption hypothesis: learning to hear God in evangelical Christianity. American Anthropologist. 2010;112 (1):66-78.

Romme M, Escher S. Accepting voices. London: Mind, 1993.

Tellegen A, Atkinson G. Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences (“absorption”): a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility. J Abnorm Psychol. 1974;83(3):268-77. Abstract

View all comments by Tanya Luhrmann

Related News: Research Roundup —The Tapestry of Environmental Influences in Psychosis

Comment by:  Mary Cannon
Submitted 15 November 2010
Posted 15 November 2010

This beautifully written piece serves to excite interest in the fascinating epidemiology of schizophrenia. In our search for the “missing heritability” of schizophrenia, we don’t have to look too far for clues. There are many contained in this piece. It just requires some Sherlock Holmes-type deductive reasoning to put them all together now!

The realization that psychotic symptoms (or psychotic-like experiences) can be used as a proxy for schizophrenia risk has opened up new vistas for exploration (Kelleher and Cannon, 2010). For instance, the paper by Nuevo and colleagues will provide a fertile ground for testing ecological hypotheses on the etiology of schizophrenia—such as examining cross-national vitamin D levels (McGrath et al.) or fish oil consumption. Geneticists have yet to appreciate the potential value of studying such symptoms. Ian Kelleher, Jack Jenner, and I have argued in a recent editorial that the non-clinical psychosis phenotype provides us with a population in which to test hypotheses about the evolutionary benefit of psychosis genes (Kelleher et al., 2010; see also Nesse, 2004). This non-clinical psychosis phenotype gives rise to the possibility of moving beyond just-so stories into the realm of testable hypotheses.


Kelleher I, Cannon M. Psychotic-like experiences in the general population: characterizing a high-risk group for psychosis. Psychol Med. 2010 May 19:1-6. Abstract

Kelleher I, Jenner JA, Cannon M. Psychotic symptoms in the general population - an evolutionary perspective. Br J Psychiatry. 2010 Sep;197(3):167-9.

Nesse RM. Cliff-edged fitness functions and the persistence of schizophrenia. Behav Brain Sci. 2004;27:862-3.

View all comments by Mary Cannon

Related News: Research Roundup —The Tapestry of Environmental Influences in Psychosis

Comment by:  Jean-Paul Selten
Submitted 17 November 2010
Posted 17 November 2010
  I recommend the Primary Papers

With interest, I read Victoria Wilcox's summary of some thought-provoking papers published this year. It seems that schizophrenia, like cancer, has many different causes. I would like to point out that three of the studies (Zammit et al., 2010; Wicks et al., 2010; Schofield et al., 2010) support the idea that social defeat and/or social exclusion increase risk. The paper by Zammit et al. showed this in an elegant way: being different from the mainstream, no matter on what account, increased the subject's risk. The next step is to show that social exclusion has an impact on an individual's dopamine function. My group is examining this in young adults with an acquired hearing impairment, using SPECT.


Zammit S, Lewis G, Rasbash J, Dalman C, Gustafsson J-E, Allebeck P. Individuals, schools, and neighborhood: a multilevel longitudinal study of variation in incidence of psychotic disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Sep;67(9):914-22. Abstract

Wicks S, Hjern A, Dalman C. Social risk or genetic liability for psychosis? A study of children born in Sweden and reared by adoptive parents. Am J Psychiatry. 2010 Oct;167(10):1240-6. Epub 2010 Aug 4. Abstract

Schofield P, Ashworth M, Jones R. Ethnic isolation and psychosis: re-examining the ethnic density effect. Psychol Med. 2010 Sep 22:1-7. Abstract

View all comments by Jean-Paul Selten

Related News: Research Roundup —The Tapestry of Environmental Influences in Psychosis

Comment by:  Chris Carter
Submitted 26 November 2010
Posted 26 November 2010
  I recommend the Primary Papers

I have been collecting diverse references for environmental risk factors in schizophrenia at Schizophrenia Risk Factors. These include many prenatal influences due to maternal infection, usually with some sort of virus, or immune activation with fever. Several animal studies have shown that infection or immune activation in mice can produce schizophrenia-like symptoms in the offspring. Toxoplasmosis has often been cited as a risk factor in adulthood.

Many of the genes implicated in schizophrenia are also involved in the life cycles of these pathogens, and interactions between genes and risk factors can together contribute to endophenotypes; for example, MICB and Herpes simplex infection have single and combined effects on grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex.

Over 600 genes have been associated with schizophrenia. When these were pumped through a Kegg pathway analysis, the usual suspects (neuregulin, dopamine, and glutamate pathways, among others) figure highly in the list of pathways. Immune-related pathways are also highly represented, as are many pathogen entry pathways, including that for toxoplasmosis, which heads the list. Some of the more exotic pathways, for example, Chaga’s disease, should be considered as generic, as well as specific.

These Kegg-generated data suggest that there are strong relationships between genes and risk factors. Perhaps stratification of GWAS data in relation to infection could take this into account.


Bortolato M, Godar SC. Animal models of virus-induced neurobehavioral sequelae: recent advances, methodological issues, and future prospects. Interdiscip Perspect Infect Dis . 2010 Jan 1 ; 2010():380456. Abstract

Carter CJ. Schizophrenia susceptibility genes directly implicated in the life cycles of pathogens: cytomegalovirus, influenza, herpes simplex, rubella, and Toxoplasma gondii. Schizophr Bull . 2009 Nov 1 ; 35(6):1163-82. Abstract

Fatemi SH, Emamian ES, Kist D, Sidwell RW, Nakajima K, Akhter P, Shier A, Sheikh S, Bailey K. Defective corticogenesis and reduction in Reelin immunoreactivity in cortex and hippocampus of prenatally infected neonatal mice. Mol Psychiatry . 1999 Mar 1 ; 4(2):145-54. Abstract

Fatemi SH, Pearce DA, Brooks AI, Sidwell RW. Prenatal viral infection in mouse causes differential expression of genes in brains of mouse progeny: a potential animal model for schizophrenia and autism. Synapse . 2005 Aug 1 ; 57(2):91-9. Abstractx

Ozawa K, Hashimoto K, Kishimoto T, Shimizu E, Ishikura H, Iyo M. Immune activation during pregnancy in mice leads to dopaminergic hyperfunction and cognitive impairment in the offspring: a neurodevelopmental animal model of schizophrenia. Biol Psychiatry . 2006 Mar 15 ; 59(6):546-54. Abstract

Prasad KM, Bamne MN, Shirts BH, Goradia D, Mannali V, Pancholi KM, Xue B, McClain L, Yolken RH, Keshavan MS, Nimgaonkar VL. Grey matter changes associated with host genetic variation and exposure to Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV1) in first episode schizophrenia. Schizophr Res . 2010 May 1 ; 118(1-3):232-9. Abstract

Yolken RH, Torrey EF. Are some cases of psychosis caused by microbial agents? A review of the evidence. Mol Psychiatry . 2008 May 1 ; 13(5):470-9. Abstract

Zuckerman L, Weiner I. Maternal immune activation leads to behavioral and pharmacological changes in the adult offspring. J Psychiatr Res . 2005 May 1 ; 39(3):311-23. Abstract

View all comments by Chris Carter