What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real. Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and inactivity. Diagnosis is based on observed behavior and the person’s reported experiences.

Genetics and early environment, as well as psychological and social processes, appear to be important contributory factors. Some recreational and prescription drugs appear to cause or worsen symptoms. The many possible combinations of symptoms have triggered debate about whether the diagnosis represents a single disorder or a number of separate syndromes. Despite the origin of the term from the Greek roots skhizein (“to split”) and phrēn (“mind”), schizophrenia does not imply a “split personality”, or “multiple personality disorder”—a condition with which it is often confused in public perception. Rather, the term means a “splitting of mental functions”, reflecting the presentation of the illness.

The mainstay of treatment is antipsychotic medication, which primarily suppresses dopamine receptor activity. Counseling, job training and social rehabilitation are also important in treatment. In more serious cases—where there is risk to self or others—involuntary hospitalization may be necessary, although hospital stays are now shorter and less frequent than they once were.

Symptoms begin typically in young adulthood, and about 0.3–0.7% of people are affected during their lifetime. The disorder is thought to mainly affect the ability to think, but it also usually contributes to chronic problems with behavior and emotion. People with schizophrenia are likely to have additional conditions, including major depression and anxiety disorders; the lifetime occurrence of substance use disorder is almost 50%.

Social problems, such as long-term unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are common. The average life expectancy of people with the disorder is ten to twenty five years less than the average life expectancy. This is the result of increased physical health problems and a higher suicide rate (about 5%). In 2013 an estimated 16,000 people died from behavior related-to or caused by schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia Symptoms

Individuals with schizophrenia may experience hallucinations (most reported are hearing voices), delusions (often bizarre or persecutory in nature), and disorganized thinking and speech. The last may range from loss of train of thought, to sentences only loosely connected in meaning, to speech that is not understandable known as word salad in severe cases. Social withdrawal, sloppiness of dress and hygiene, and loss of motivation and judgment are all common in schizophrenia.

There is often an observable pattern of emotional difficulty, for example lack of responsiveness. Impairment in social cognition is associated with schizophrenia, as are symptoms of paranoia. Social isolation commonly occurs. Difficulties in working and long-term memory, attention, executive functioning, and speed of processing also commonly occur.

In one uncommon subtype, the person may be largely mute, remain motionless in bizarre postures, or exhibit purposeless agitation, all signs of catatonia. About 30 to 50% of people with schizophrenia fail to accept that they have an illness or their recommended treatment. Treatment may have some effect on insight. People with schizophrenia often find facial emotion perception to be difficult.

Positive and Negative

Schizophrenia is often described in terms of positive and negative (or deficit) symptoms.

Positive symptoms are those that most individuals do not normally experience but are present in people with schizophrenia. They can include delusions, disordered thoughts and speech, and tactile, auditory, visual, olfactory and gustatory hallucinations, typically regarded as manifestations of psychosis. Hallucinations are also typically related to the content of the delusional theme. Positive symptoms generally respond well to medication.

Negative symptoms are deficits of normal emotional responses or of other thought processes, and are less responsive to medication. They commonly include flat expressions or little emotion, poverty of speech, inability to experience pleasure, lack of desire to form relationships, and lack of motivation. Negative symptoms appear to contribute more to poor quality of life, functional ability, and the burden on others than do positive symptoms. People with greater negative symptoms often have a history of poor adjustment before the onset of illness, and response to medication is often limited.


Late adolescence and early adulthood are peak periods for the onset of schizophrenia, critical years in a young adult’s social and vocational development. In 40% of men and 23% of women diagnosed with schizophrenia, the condition manifested itself before the age of 19.

To minimize the developmental disruption associated with schizophrenia, much work has recently been done to identify and treat the prodromal (pre-onset) phase of the illness, which has been detected up to 30 months before the onset of symptoms. Those who go on to develop schizophrenia may experience transient or self-limiting psychotic symptoms and the non-specific symptoms of social withdrawal, irritability, dysphoria, and clumsiness during the prodromal phase.


A combination of genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of schizophrenia. People with a family history of schizophrenia who have a transient psychosis have a 20–40% chance of being diagnosed one year later.


Estimates of heritability vary because of the difficulty in separating the effects of genetics and the environment; averages of 0.80 have been given. The greatest risk for developing schizophrenia is having a first-degree relative with the disease (risk is 6.5%); more than 40% of monozygotic twins of those with schizophrenia are also affected. If one parent is affected the risk is about 13% and if both are affected the risk is nearly 50%.

It is likely that many genes are involved, each of small effect and unknown transmission and expression. Many possible candidates have been proposed, including specific copy number variations, NOTCH4, and histone protein loci. A number of genome-wide associations such as zinc finger protein 804A have also been linked. There appears to be overlap in the genetics of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Evidence is emerging that the genetic architecture of schizophrenia involved both common and rare risk variation.

Assuming a hereditary basis, one question from evolutionary psychology is why genes that increase the likelihood of psychosis evolved, assuming the condition would have been maladaptive from an evolutionary point of view. One idea is that genes are involved in the evolution of language and human nature, but to date such ideas remain little more than hypothetical in nature.


Environmental factors associated with the development of schizophrenia include the living environment, drug use and prenatal stressors. Parenting style seems to have no major effect, although people with supportive parents do better than those with critical or hostile parents.

Childhood trauma, death of a parent, and being bullied or abused increase the risk of psychosis. Living in an urban environment during childhood or as an adult has consistently been found to increase the risk of schizophrenia by a factor of two, even after taking into account drug use, ethnic group, and size of social group. Other factors that play an important role include social isolation and immigration related to social adversity, racial discrimination, family dysfunction, unemployment, and poor housing conditions.

Substance Use

About half of those with schizophrenia use drugs or alcohol excessively. Amphetamine, cocaine, and to a lesser extent alcohol, can result in psychosis that presents very similarly to schizophrenia. Although it is not generally believed to be a cause of the illness, people with schizophrenia use nicotine at much greater rates than the general population.

Alcohol abuse can occasionally cause the development of a chronic substance-induced psychotic disorder via a kindling mechanism. Alcohol use is not associated with an earlier onset of psychosis.

A significant proportion of people with schizophrenia use cannabis to help cope with its symptoms. Cannabis can be a contributory factor in schizophrenia, but cannot cause it alone; its use is neither necessary nor sufficient for development of any form of psychosis. Early exposure of the developing brain to cannabis increases the risk of schizophrenia, although the size of the increased risk is difficult to quantify; only a small proportion of early cannabis recreational users go on to develop any schizoaffective disorder in adult life, and the increased risk may require the presence of certain genes within an individual or may be related to preexisting psychopathology.

Higher dosage and greater frequency of use are indicators of increased risk of chronic psychoses. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) produce opposing effects; CBD has antipsychotic and neuroprotective properties and counteracts negative effects of THC.

Other drugs may be used only as coping mechanisms by individuals who have schizophrenia to deal with depression, anxiety, boredom, and loneliness.

Developmental Factors

Factors such as hypoxia and infection, or stress and malnutrition in the mother during fetal development, may result in a slight increase in the risk of schizophrenia later in life. People diagnosed with schizophrenia are more likely to have been born in winter or spring (at least in the northern hemisphere), which may be a result of increased rates of viral exposures in utero. The increased risk is about 5 to 8%.


A number of attempts have been made to explain the link between altered brain function and schizophrenia. One of the most common is the dopamine hypothesis, which attributes psychosis to the mind’s faulty interpretation of the misfiring of dopaminergic neurons.


Many psychological mechanisms have been implicated in the development and maintenance of schizophrenia. Cognitive biases have been identified in those with the diagnosis or those at risk, especially when under stress or in confusing situations. Some cognitive features may reflect global neurocognitive deficits such as memory loss, while others may be related to particular issues and experiences.

Despite a demonstrated appearance of blunted affect, recent findings indicate that many individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia are emotionally responsive, particularly to stressful or negative stimuli, and that such sensitivity may cause vulnerability to symptoms or to the disorder.

Some evidence suggests that the content of delusional beliefs and psychotic experiences can reflect emotional causes of the disorder, and that how a person interprets such experiences can influence symptomatology. The use of “safety behaviors” (acts such as gestures or the use of words in specific contexts) to avoid or neutralize imagined threats may actually contribute to the chronicity of delusions. Further evidence for the role of psychological mechanisms comes from the effects of psychotherapies on symptoms of schizophrenia.


Schizophrenia is associated with subtle differences in brain structures, found in 40 to 50% of cases, and in brain chemistry during acute psychotic states. Studies using neuropsychological tests and brain imaging technologies such as fMRI and PET to examine functional differences in brain activity have shown that differences seem to most commonly occur in the frontal lobes, hippocampus and temporal lobes.

Reductions in brain volume, smaller than those found in Alzheimer’s disease, have been reported in areas of the frontal cortex and temporal lobes. It is uncertain whether these volumetric changes are progressive or preexist prior to the onset of the disease. These differences have been linked to the neurocognitive deficits often associated with schizophrenia. Because neural circuits are altered, it has alternatively been suggested that schizophrenia should be thought of as a collection of neurodevelopmental disorders. There has been debate on whether treatment with antipsychotics can itself cause reduction of brain volume.

Particular attention has been paid to the function of dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway of the brain. This focus largely resulted from the accidental finding that phenothiazine drugs, which block dopamine function, could reduce psychotic symptoms. It is also supported by the fact that amphetamines, which trigger the release of dopamine, may exacerbate the psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia.

The influential dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia proposed that excessive activation of D2 receptors was the cause of (the positive symptoms of) schizophrenia. Although postulated for about 20 years based on the D2 blockade effect common to all antipsychotics, it was not until the mid-1990s that PET and SPET imaging studies provided supporting evidence. The dopamine hypothesis is now thought to be simplistic, partly because newer antipsychotic medication (atypical antipsychotic medication) can be just as effective as older medication (typical antipsychotic medication), but also affects serotonin function and may have slightly less of a dopamine blocking effect.

Interest has also focused on the neurotransmitter glutamate and the reduced function of the NMDA glutamate receptor in schizophrenia, largely because of the abnormally low levels of glutamate receptors found in the postmortem brains of those diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the discovery that glutamate-blocking drugs such as phencyclidine and ketamine can mimic the symptoms and cognitive problems associated with the condition.

Reduced glutamate function is linked to poor performance on tests requiring frontal lobe and hippocampal function, and glutamate can affect dopamine function, both of which have been implicated in schizophrenia, have suggested an important mediating (and possibly causal) role of glutamate pathways in the condition. But positive symptoms fail to respond to glutamatergic medication.

History of Schizophrenia

In the early 20th century, the psychiatrist Kurt Schneider listed the forms of psychotic symptoms that he thought distinguished schizophrenia from other psychotic disorders. These are called first-rank symptoms or Schneider’s first-rank symptoms. They include delusions of being controlled by an external force; the belief that thoughts are being inserted into or withdrawn from one’s conscious mind; the belief that one’s thoughts are being broadcast to other people; and hearing hallucinatory voices that comment on one’s thoughts or actions or that have a conversation with other hallucinated voices.

Although they have significantly contributed to the current diagnostic criteria, the specificity of first-rank symptoms has been questioned. A review of the diagnostic studies conducted between 1970 and 2005 found that they allow neither a reconfirmation nor a rejection of Schneider’s claims, and suggested that first-rank symptoms should be de-emphasized in future revisions of diagnostic systems.

The history of schizophrenia is complex and does not lend itself easily to a linear narrative.

Accounts of a schizophrenia-like syndrome are thought to be rare in historical records before the 19th century, although reports of irrational, unintelligible, or uncontrolled behavior were common. A detailed case report in 1797 concerning James Tilly Matthews, and accounts by Phillipe Pinel published in 1809, are often regarded as the earliest cases of the illness in the medical and psychiatric literature.

The Latinized term dementia praecox was first used by German alienist Heinrich Schule in 1886 and then in 1891 by Arnold Pick in a case report of a psychotic disorder (hebephrenia). In 1893 Emil Kraepelin borrowed the term from Schule and Pick and in 1899 introduced a broad new distinction in the classification of mental disorders between dementia praecox and mood disorder (termed manic depression and including both unipolar and bipolar depression).

Kraepelin believed that dementia praecox was probably caused by a long-term, smouldering systemic or “whole body” disease process that affected many organs and peripheral nerves in the body but which affected the brain after puberty in a final decisive cascade. His use of the term “praecox” distinguished it from other forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease which typically occur later in life. It is sometimes argued that the use of the term démence précoce in 1852 by the French physician Bénédict Morel constitutes the medical discovery of schizophrenia. However this account ignores the fact that there is little to connect Morel’s descriptive use of the term and the independent development of the dementia praecox disease concept at the end of the nineteenth-century.

The word schizophrenia was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1908 and was intended to describe the separation of function between personality, thinking, memory, and perception. American and British interpretations of Beuler led to the claim that he described its main symptoms as 4 A’s: flattened Affect, Autism, impaired Association of ideas and Ambivalence.

Bleuler realized that the illness was not a dementia, as some of his patients improved rather than deteriorated, and thus proposed the term schizophrenia instead. Treatment was revolutionized in the mid-1950s with the development and introduction of chlorpromazine.

In the early 1970s, the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia were the subject of a number of controversies which eventually led to the operational criteria used today. It became clear after the 1971 US-UK Diagnostic Study that schizophrenia was diagnosed to a far greater extent in America than in Europe. This was partly due to looser diagnostic criteria in the US, which used the DSM-II manual, contrasting with Europe and its ICD-9. David Rosenhan’s 1972 study, published in the journal Science under the title “On being sane in insane places“, concluded that the diagnosis of schizophrenia in the US was often subjective and unreliable.

These were some of the factors leading to the revision not only of the diagnosis of schizophrenia, but the revision of the whole DSM manual, resulting in the publication of the DSM-III in 1980.

The term schizophrenia is commonly misunderstood to mean that affected persons have a “split personality”. Although some people diagnosed with schizophrenia may hear voices and may experience the voices as distinct personalities, schizophrenia does not involve a person changing among distinct multiple personalities. The confusion arises in part due to the literal interpretation of Bleuler’s term schizophrenia (Bleuler originally associated Schizophrenia with dissociation and included split personality in his category of Schizophrenia). Dissociative identity disorder (having a “split personality”) was also often misdiagnosed as Schizophrenia based on the loose criteria in the DSM-II. The first known misuse of the term to mean “split personality” was in an article by the poet T. S. Eliot in 1933. Other scholars have traced earlier roots.

Further Reading:

Noll, Richard (2011). American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Berrios, G. E.; Porter, Roy (1995). A History of Clinical Psychiatry: The Origin and History of Psychiatric Disorders. London: Athlone Press

Mueser KT, Jeste DV (2008). Clinical Handbook of Schizophrenia. New York: Guilford Press.
Michael Foster Green (2003) Schizophrenia Revealed: From Neurons to Social Interactions W. W. Norton & Company

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