Schizophrenia is a much misunderstood disease. It is not “split personality.” The disease is perhaps best described as the inability to distinguish imagination from reality. Schizophrenia strikes about one in a hundred people and usually first surfaces in the 20s. Victims are often tormented by visionary and auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices that no one else hears is common. So are delusions of persecution. Schizophrenics sometimes believe that others are trying to affect their lives by the use of magnetic waves or other such forces. Often they will show inappropriate responses to events, for example laughing at a tragedy. What causes such a disease? The same factors that cause any disease. Something goes wrong with the body’s chemistry. One such error has been identified in schizophrenics. The brain produces too much of a chemical called dopamine and this results in improper transmission of information from one nerve cell to another. Drugs which block the action of dopamine can treat schizophrenia, but of course do not cure the disease. The major question is what causes the overproduction of dopamine in the first place?
The faulty brain chemistry may actually originate in the fetal stage. A survey of people born in cities in the Netherlands from 1944-46 when there was famine because of Nazi blockade showed that those conceived at the height of the famine later displayed twice the schizophrenia rate. During the famine people were consuming only about 500-1000 calories a day so that women who conceived at that time certainly could have been deficient in some nutrients that are important for mental health. One possibility is a deficiency in B vitamins. These vitamins are crucial for the normal metabolism of a naturally occurring compound in the body called homocysteine. In the absence of B vitamins homocysteine levels increase with some serious consequences. High levels have been associated with cardiovascular disease as well as with Alzheimer’s. And some studies have now found that schizophrenics have elevated homocysteine levels in their blood. If such is the case, why not try treating them with supplemental B vitamins? This is exactly what Dr. R. H. Belmaker at Ben Gurion University in Israel wanted to explore. He enrolled forty-two schizophrenics in a placebo- controlled trial that involved adding 2 milligrams folic acid, twenty-five milligrams of vitamin B-6 and four hundred micrograms of B-12 to their regular medication. As expected, homocysteine levels dropped in the patients taking the vitamins. But more importantly, so did the clinical symptoms of schizophrenia. And furthermore, the vitamin-supplemented patients did better on psychological tests. High homocysteine levels can also be caused by other factors such as smoking, obesity and caffeine intake, but these are notoriously hard to control. B vitamin supplements on the other hand are easy to administer and may turn out to be a valuable adjunct to the usual drug treatment of schizophrenia.