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Schizophrenia: The Split Mind (VIDEO)

First Posted: 12/23/11 10:09 AM ET Updated: 12/23/11 05:45 PM ET

Hey everybody, Cara Santa Maria here. It is estimated that 25% of the homeless population in this country suffer from severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia. With the release of Thorazine and Haldol in the early 50s and 60s, the asylum system began to crumble. And although these drugs gave individuals with schizophrenia a fighting chance at living a normal life, without aftercare, many of these individuals were unable to cope with the harsh realities of modern society. This significantly contributed to the homeless population that we see today.

What do you think of when you hear the word schizophrenia? There are a lot of popular psychology myths surrounding the disorder.

For example, schizophrenia is NOT the same thing as multiple personality disorder. Schizophrenia literally means "split mind," not that its a disease of split personalities, but that individuals suffering from the disease are often split off from reality.

Schizophrenia has many faces: paranoid type, disorganized type, even catatonic type. The primary symptoms are: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior, and negative symptoms, like speaking without emotional tone or having very little energy or will to do anything.

There are other psychiatric conditions that could be confused with schizophrenia like schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychotic features, abnormal behavior due to brain damage, or some pervasive developmental disorders.

It takes a highly trained clinician to make the distinction between these disorders, which is often muddy and nuanced, but what actually causes schizophrenia? If the mind is the behavioral manifestation of brain activity, doesn't it follow that there's something physically different in the schizophrenic brain? And with new research, will these psychological definitions need to be overhauled?

We know that the brains of schizophrenic patients are somewhat reduced in size and have enlarged ventricles. Functionally, the frontal lobes (which are involved in executive functioning and planning), the hippocampus (an essential area for forming memories), and the temporal lobes (which are responsible for speech and hearing) also show signs of dysfunction.

Believe it or not, researchers have long been aware of a slightly increased risk of developing schizophrenia in babies who are born in the winter and early spring. They think that this could be linked to viral exposure by pregnant mothers during winter months.

In fact, schizophrenia could be linked to a virus that lives in our DNA. Recent studies have shown a higher than normal expression of a specific endogenous retrovirus in individuals with schizophrenia. An endogenous retrovirus is an RNA virus that was folded into the human genome millions of years ago through evolution. It is always a part of us. It may be the case that individuals with schizophrenia are exposed to an outside virus during pregnancy or around birth, and that virus leads to changes in retrovirus already present. Later in life, an environmental or genetic trigger may cause that retrovirus to become activated, thus inducing the classical symptoms of schizophrenia, which often don't appear until patients are 15-25 years-old. This is an exciting development, because it could lead to future antiviral treatments for individuals living with this debilitating disease.

Join me as we continue to discuss the science of mental health this month. You can message me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments on my HuffPost blog. Come on, Talk Nerdy To Me!

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