Potential Biological Marker for Schizophrenia Identified
"This data is very provocative. It definitely indicates that there is a connection between retroviruses and the disease [schizophrenia]," Erik Lillehoj, PhD, tells WebMD. Lillehoj is director of research at Roveko Ltd., in Gaithersburg, MD. Lillehoj was not associated with Yee's investigations.
Interest in the association between viral infections and mental illness has grown in recent years. "There was some speculation by people decades ago that infectious agents were linked to serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder [manic depression]. That theory was not generally accepted. Now, there is evidence coming in from researchers from independent labs ... that there could be an association between viruses and these [mental illnesses]," Darrenn J. Hart, PhD, of Tulane University School of Medicine, tells WebMD in an interview seeking objective commentary. In his work, Hart has found evidence of antibodies against retrovirus in the blood of half of the patients he tested who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Are retrovirus infections the cause of schizophrenia? "We're not saying that all cases of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are caused by retroviruses, but it may be the case for a subpopulation of patients," Hart says.
The findings could have important implications for the diagnosis and management of schizophrenia, as well as understanding its cause. "This could mean that we will have new ways of diagnosing schizophrenia, possibly through a blood test. It could also affect drastically how people are treated. ... Perhaps someday people who fall into this category will be treated with antiviral drugs in addition to [antipsychotic] medications," Hart says. According to both Hart and Lillehoj, no studies of antiviral therapy for schizophrenia are currently underway.
Retrovirus infection could also help explain the familial occurrence of schizophrenia, Hart tells WebMD. "Retroviruses can be transmitted from parent to child. It's possible that this type [of schizophrenia] is transmitted genetically, and not so much by person-to-person contact."
Yolken is conservative about the clinical utility of what's known about retroviruses and schizophrenia at this time. He tells WebMD, "It's an evolving story. There's a lot we still don't know. Our long-term goal is to come up with some way of interfering with this activation and modulating it so that we come up with a new way of treating this disease."