E. Fuller Torrey Is Right About a Cause of Schizophrenia, but Missed How to Prevent Schizophrenia

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dennis Embry ~ 

Yep, it’s true that cat poop can cause schizophrenia.  To be more correct, studies by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey promote the idea that the actual cause is bacteria found in cat poop, toxoplasma gondii [1-8].  The data Dr. Torrey cites are almost certainly, true. However as a cat lover, I do not propose killing cats to prevent schizophrenia—even though Dr. Torrey’s research might imply that.

Dr. Torrey is widely known for his advocacy for assisted outpatient treatment or AOT­—after people have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Treatment is a good idea, yet why not prevention in the first instance. Could we prevent toxoplasma gondii infection carried by cats associated with schizophrenia without killing cats?  Yes, and it doesn’t involve psychiatric medication or treatments. The prevention mechanism is a behavioral vaccine, like hand washing that prevents many infectious diseases [9-11].

The prevention of schizophrenia caused by toxoplasma gondii has to be viewed in context. First, rates of schizophrenia increase among humans who are increasingly North or South of the equator [12-25]. Second, darker skin increases the risk of schizophrenia [14, 21, 26], while eating oily fish reduces the prevalence of schizophrenia [21, 27, 28].  All of this implicates vitamin D [26, 29, 30].

As a prevention scientist and a child psychologist, it troubles me that exquisite data exists on a preventable cause of schizophrenia—thanks to Dr. Torrey and others— are not receiving enough attention.  We have good data to show that Americans are increasingly deficient in the protective power of vitamin D, because of cultural practices such as diets low in oily fish and low levels of outdoor play.  That, in turn, increases our risk of infections that increase the risk of schizophrenia.

The time is now to stop writing off psychiatric disorders as caused by some unknown genetic defect or chemical imbalance in the brain. The 2009 Institute of Medicine Report on the Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People [31] makes it clear that psychiatric disorders are increasingly preventable.  Let’s give a round of applause to E. Fuller Torrey for identifying one way to prevent serious mental illness. 

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  24. Schwartz, P.J., Can the season of birth risk factor for schizophrenia be prevented by bright light treatment for the second trimester mother around the winter solstice? Med Hypotheses, 2014. 83(6): p. 809-15.
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  31. O'Connell, M.E., T. Boat, and K.E. Warner, eds. Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities. Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse Among Children, Youth and Young Adults: Research Advances and Promising Interventions. 2009, Institute of Medicine; National Research Council: Washington, DC. 576.

embryDennis D. Embry, Ph.D., is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as a clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, AZ and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. Dr. Embry was recently appointed to the member of the SAMHSA Center for Mental Health Services National Advisory Council. His work and that of colleagues is cited in 2009 the Institute of Medicine Report on The Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People. Clinically his work has focused on children and adults with serious mental illnesses. Dennis Embry is a member of the Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council.

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