The simple facts on 'split brain' disorder

Liz Hunt answers some of the questions most frequently asked about schizophrenia
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QWhat is schizophrenia?

AIt is a general term for a group of psychotic illnesses - the most common form of psychotic disorder - characterised by disturbed thinking, emotional reactions, and behaviours. The word means "split brain" to describe how the sufferer's thoughts and feelings may not relate to each other in a logical fashion. Often the disorder is described as having a "split personality" but this has led to it being confused with multiple personality disorder, a quite distinct condition.

QWhat is the cause? Is there a genetic component?

AWhat is happening in the brain of a schizophrenic is not fully understood. However, the drugs which are beneficial in controlling symptoms work on certain chemical messengers. These chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, enable brain cells to communicate with each other. Scientists conclude that an imbalance of neurotransmitters is probably the root cause. There is a strong genetic factor but it cannot explain all cases. First-degree relatives of schizophrenics (parents, children or siblings) have a 10 per cent chance of developing the illness. The identical twin of a schizophrenic has a one in two chance of developing schizophrenia.

Q Is schizophrenia a disease of the 20th century or has it always existed? Is the incidence increasing?

AAlthough schizophrenia has been studied properly only in the last 100 years, the symptoms are described in the earliest medical tracts. Its prevalence is remarkedly consistent throughout the world, at 1 in 100 of the population. However, it is possibly more common in some geographical areas than others and certainly in inner cities, where poor living standards, lack of access to medical care, and other deprivation, may act as a trigger. A disproportionate number of people of Afro-Caribbean extraction in Britain suffer from schizophrenia. There are an estimated 250,000 people diagnosed with schizophrenia in the United Kingdom. The age of onset is between 15 and 30.

QCan people grow out of it?

AA proportion of sufferers, possibly up to 30 per cent, suffer one acute episode and then get better. Another, smaller group may have three or four episodes and then recover. Often these episodes are linked to drug taking and some researchers insist that this group does not have schizophrenia at all, just symptoms similar to it triggered by certain drugs. But essentially, schizophrenia is a disabling and prolonged illness.

Q Is there a cure? What can doctors do?

AThere is no cure. About 10 per cent of sufferers are severely impaired for life by the disorder. Up to 30 per cent will resume normal lives while the majority have varying degrees of independence during the course of their illness. Doctors rely on anti-psychotic drugs which reduce the symptoms and may make some patients more receptive to psychotherapy.