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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Theories of schizophrenia: a genetic-inflammatory-vascular synthesis

Daniel R Hanson1* and Irving I Gottesman2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, VA Medical Center (116A), One Veterans Drive, Minneapolis, MN, 55417 and Departments of Psychiatry & Psychology, University of Minnesota, USA

2 Departments of Psychiatry & Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55454, USA

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BMC Medical Genetics 2005, 6:7  doi:10.1186/1471-2350-6-7

Published: 11 February 2005

Abstract

Background

Schizophrenia, a relatively common psychiatric syndrome, affects virtually all brain functions yet has eluded explanation for more than 100 years. Whether by developmental and/or degenerative processes, abnormalities of neurons and their synaptic connections have been the recent focus of attention. However, our inability to fathom the pathophysiology of schizophrenia forces us to challenge our theoretical models and beliefs. A search for a more satisfying model to explain aspects of schizophrenia uncovers clues pointing to genetically mediated CNS microvascular inflammatory disease.

Discussion

A vascular component to a theory of schizophrenia posits that the physiologic abnormalities leading to illness involve disruption of the exquisitely precise regulation of the delivery of energy and oxygen required for normal brain function. The theory further proposes that abnormalities of CNS metabolism arise because genetically modulated inflammatory reactions damage the microvascular system of the brain in reaction to environmental agents, including infections, hypoxia, and physical trauma. Damage may accumulate with repeated exposure to triggering agents resulting in exacerbation and deterioration, or healing with their removal.

There are clear examples of genetic polymorphisms in inflammatory regulators leading to exaggerated inflammatory responses. There is also ample evidence that inflammatory vascular disease of the brain can lead to psychosis, often waxing and waning, and exhibiting a fluctuating course, as seen in schizophrenia. Disturbances of CNS blood flow have repeatedly been observed in people with schizophrenia using old and new technologies. To account for the myriad of behavioral and other curious findings in schizophrenia such as minor physical anomalies, or reported decreased rates of rheumatoid arthritis and highly visible nail fold capillaries, we would have to evoke a process that is systemic such as the vascular and immune/inflammatory systems.

Summary

A vascular-inflammatory theory of schizophrenia brings together environmental and genetic factors in a way that can explain the diversity of symptoms and outcomes observed. If these ideas are confirmed, they would lead in new directions for treatments or preventions by avoiding inducers of inflammation or by way of inflammatory modulating agents, thus preventing exaggerated inflammation and consequent triggering of a psychotic episode in genetically predisposed persons.