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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 00:01 GMT
Sun's rays are good for the brain
People sunbathing at the beach
Sunshine is the key source of vitamin D
The chance of developing schizophrenia may be directly linked to how sunny it was in the months before a person's birth, research suggests.

A lack of sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency, which scientists believe could alter the development of a child's brain in the womb.

Research suggests people who develop schizophrenia in Europe and North America are more likely to be born in the spring, according to an article in the New Scientist.

They are also roughly four times as likely to be born to Afro-Caribbean immigrants living in England as they are to have parents of other ethnic origins living in the same areas.

Low vitamin D could impact general intelligence and have a whole range of neurological outcomes

Dr John McGrath, psychiatrist
The body needs sunlight to make vitamin D and people with darker skin need more than paler-skinned people.

Last year, John McGrath, a psychiatrist at the Queensland Centre of Schizophrenia Research in Brisbane, Australia, suggested a lack of UV light during pregnancy tips the balance towards schizophrenia in genetically susceptible people.

Recent studies on rats add further weight to his theory.

Startled rats

Dr McGrath found that just like humans with schizophrenia, adult rats deprived of vitamin D from conception are more startled than normal by a loud noise preceded by a soft noise.

He also found ventricles in the brains of vitamin-deprived baby rats are also unusually large, a feature seen in people with schizophrenia.

His team also used "gene chips" in the brains of adult rats deprived of vitamin D during gestation.

The chips revealed many genes had become less active, including three for brain receptors and several that code for proteins involved in building nerve synapses.

The new findings do not conclusively prove a lack of vitamin D during pregnancy helps trigger schizophrenia.

However, Dr McGrath says the rat experiments show that too little vitamin D "does something nasty to the brain".

He suggests it is important to try to discover exactly what it does because A US survey suggests vitamin D deficiency affects 12% of women of childbearing age.

Better treatment

He said: "This should be a wake up call.

"We should find out quickly because low vitamin D could impact general intelligence and have a whole range of neurological outcomes."

However, he warned pregnant women not to take additional vitamin D until more is known about its role in development.

It has been reported that too much of the vitamin may cause birth defects.

The National Schizophrenia Fellowship has welcomed the findings.

Its chief executive Cliff Prior said: "This important research adds to the wealth of information that is available about the causes of schizophrenia and is hopefully another step along the road of understanding the condition and improving treatment.

"However, the time it takes between findings such as these and changes in treatment can be decades.

"It is vital that the best treatment that is available today is utilised and not rationed, while we continue to research the needs of future generations."

Sunlight is the primary source of vitamin D, but it is also found in foods such as cheese, butter, margarine, cream, fortified milk, fish, oysters, and fortified cereals.

See also:

10 Apr 01 | Health
Virus link to schizophrenia
08 Jul 01 | Health
Schizophrenics denied best drugs
20 Dec 00 | Medical notes
Schizophrenia: The facts
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