What Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a chronic, disabling brain disorder that affects about 1% of Americans. It may cause people to hear voices, see imaginary sights, or believe other people are controlling their thoughts. These sensations can be frightening and often lead to erratic behavior. There is no cure, but treatment can usually control the most serious symptoms.

Schizophrenia Symptoms

Symptoms of schizophrenia may include:

  • Hallucinations -- hearing or seeing imaginary things
  • Delusions -- wildly false beliefs
  • Paranoia -- the fear others are plotting against you

Some symptoms, such as lack of enjoyment in everyday life and withdrawal from social activities, may mimic depression.

How Schizophrenia Affects Thoughts

People with schizophrenia often have abnormal ways of thinking. They may have trouble organizing their thoughts or making logical connections. They may feel like the mind is racing from one unrelated thought to another. Sometimes they experience "thought blocking," a feeling that thoughts are removed from their head. Schizophrenia is not dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder.)

How Schizophrenia Affects Behavior

Schizophrenia causes a wide range of behaviors. People may speak incoherently or even make up words. They may act agitated or appear stone-faced. Many people have trouble maintaining basic hygiene or order in their homes.  Schizophrenia can also cause repetitive behaviors, such as pacing. In contrast to common stereotypes, the risk of violence against others is small.

Who Gets Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia affects men and women at the same rate, and occurs almost equally in all ethnic groups around the world.  Symptoms usually begin between ages 16 and 30. The onset tends to be earlier in men than in women. Schizophrenia rarely begins during childhood or after age 45. People with schizophrenia in their family may have a higher risk for the illness.

What Causes Schizophrenia?

The exact cause is not known, but scientists suspect genes and environment both play a role. Inside the brain, levels of the chemical messengers dopamine and glutamate may be out of balance. And brain structures may be abnormal, too. For example, brain scans of identical twins show that the fluid-filled "ventricles" can be larger in a twin with schizophrenia, compared with a twin who does not have the illness.  Activity levels can also be higher or lower than normal in some areas of the schizophrenic brain.

Diagnosing Schizophrenia

There are no lab tests to detect schizophrenia, so a diagnosis is usually based on clinical history and symptoms. Tests may be ordered to rule out other medical causes of symptoms. In teenagers, a combination of family history and certain behaviors can help predict the onset of schizophrenia. These behaviors include withdrawing from social groups and expressing unusual suspicions.

Medicine for Schizophrenia

Prescription drugs can reduce symptoms such as abnormal thinking, hallucinations, and delusions in people with schizophrenia. They work by blocking certain brain chemicals. Some people have troubling side effects, including tremors and major weight gain. Drugs may also interfere with other medicines or supplements being taken. In most cases, long-term use of medication is an essential part of managing schizophrenia.

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