Risk factors of serious psychiatric conditions

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Schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis cause terrible human suffering at a considerable cost to the health services. Christina Dalman's, Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Department of Public Health Science, work involves identifying the risk factors in order to understand how these conditions develop with a view to improving methods of therapy and prevention.

Christina Dalman researches into the risk factors of serious psychiatric conditions, particularly schizophrenia and autism.

“In my thesis, I studied the link between schizophrenia and complications during pregnancy, such as low birth-weight,” she says. “Since then, I’ve gradually been including other factors.

By combining blood samples from pregnant women and neonates with registry data from a wide variety of sources, Professor Dalman has built up over the years a better picture of risk factors for schizophrenia, both biological – such as complications during pregnancy and birth, infections and inflammation in infancy and advanced age of the father – and socioeconomic – such as social vulnerability, trauma (such as a death in the family), migration, urban upbringing and cannabis use.

“The next step for us is to understand how these factors operate,” she says, “We’ve started a project with geneticists at John Hopkins, USA, and epigeneticists in Bristol, UK. Some of my team have also started to study the association with other factor types, such as nutrients and hormones.”

Professor Dalman herself will now be extending her research to diagnoses other than schizophrenia.

“Conditions such as schizophrenia and autism are obviously related, and when we examine the risk factors for the autism spectrum we see a picture that very much resembles that we’ve
seen for schizophrenia. We’ll also be looking at the risk factors of bipolarism.”

Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in "From Cell to Society" 2015. Translation: Neil Betteridge.