Low prenatal vitamin D doubles schizophrenia risk

7 Sep 2010

Researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute have found that newborn babies with low levels of vitamin D have an increased risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.

The research team used tiny samples of blood taken as part of routine screening from newborn babies in Denmark. They then compared vitamin D concentrations in babies who later developed schizophrenia with healthy controls – and the study confirmed those with low vitamin D had a two-fold increased risk of developing the disorder.

Vitamin D, or the ‘sunshine hormone’, is the result of sunshine on the skin. While it has long been known that it is important for healthy bones, the Queensland team has discovered that it is also important for healthy brain growth.

Low vitamin D is common in many countries. Researchers have previously found that people with schizophrenia are more likely to be born in winter.

“While we need to replicate these findings, the study opens up the possibility that improving vitamin D levels in pregnant women and newborn babies could reduce the risk of later schizophrenia,” investigator Professor John McGrath said.

Findings from the three-year study, published in today’s edition of Archives of General Psychiatry, could eventually inform public health messages, in much the same way that pregnant women are encouraged to increase folate to reduce the risk of spina bifida in their children.

“While the links between vitamin D and bone growth have long been appreciated, the fact that we have discovered it is also important for healthy brain growth is a vital step forward,” Professor McGrath said.

Fellow investigator Dr Darryl Eyles added: “Vitamin D is necessary for cell growth and communication in all organs in the body, so it’s no surprise that a lack of vitamin D has an affect on the developing brain.”

Schizophrenia is a poorly understood group of brain disorders that affect about 1 in a 100 Australians, and usually first present in young adults. Symptoms include hearing voices and delusions.


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Notes to the Editor:
Professor John McGrath is a psychiatrist, who is currently the Director of the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research. His work aims to link clues from epidemiology with neuroscience.

Dr Darryl Eyles heads the Neurobiology laboratory at the Queensland Brain Institute, which focuses on the neurobiology of schizophrenia. Further, since 2003 the group has been investigating the effects of developmental vitamin D deficiency on brain disorders. Dr Eyles’ group is also part of the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research.

The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) was established as a research institute of the University of Queensland in 2003. The Institute is now operating out of a new $63 million state-of-the-art facility and houses 28 Principal Investigators with strong international reputations. QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.