Schizophrenia as whole-body disorder – the 100-year-old idea only now being proven

A study from researchers at King’s College London is suggesting that schizophrenia is not just a disorder of the mind but is also associated with defined physiological changes across the whole body. The study hypothesizes that these physical symptoms are not secondary effects of the illness but, in fact, indications that schizophrenia is a whole-body disorder.

For some time, scientists have observed strong associations between schizophrenia and poor physical health. Those diagnosed with the condition tend to have significantly reduced life expectancies, dying up to 20 years earlier due to a variety of issues, including heart disease, diabetes and suicide.

It has generally been considered that these secondary health factors were the result of the mental health issues. Poverty, homelessness, smoking, and a variety of social problems, are all common factors often seen in those with schizophrenia, and considered to be primarily what leads to reduced physical health and a shorter life expectancy.

But there is a growing body of evidence that suggests these bodily alterations associated with schizophrenia may not be secondary effects but rather they are fundamental symptoms of the illness.

A new paper, from a team of researchers at King’s College London, collected case-study data from 165 different studies to examine the physiological states of subjects at the point they were first diagnosed with the onset of schizophrenia. The hypothesis being that if many of these physiological effects are considered social byproducts of the condition then they shouldn’t be significantly apparent at the early stages of the illness.

“We pooled data from multiple studies, examining markers of inflammation, hormone levels and heart disease risk factors, including glucose and cholesterol levels,” explains Toby Pillinger, a researcher on the project. “We also pooled data from studies examining brain structure, levels of different chemicals within the brain, and markers of brain activity.”

From a sample size of over 13,000 subjects, the analysis concluded that there are robust physiological alterations that can be identified at the point of what the researchers term, “first-episode psychosis.” These included alterations in both cardiometabolic and immune parameters compared with a healthy control group.