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Could we prevent schizophrenia?

Research award Fellows Award programme

Funding period2013 - 2016

InstitutionHarvard Medical School



Dr Joshua Roffman asks, could folic acid hold the clue to reducing the risk of schizophrenia? 

The project

Taking folic acid around the time of conception is known to reduce the risk of disorders like spina bifida. In the 1990s, the US government recognised this, requiring grain manufacturers to fortify bread, cereals and other grain products with folic acid.

A lack of folic acid has also been linked to schizophrenia and, in a previous research project, Joshua and his team showed that some people with the condition struggle to process folic acid.

Now with this project, they are taking this work further – analysing whether the US government programme has had an impact on brain development that could influence future schizophrenia treatment.

The process

Our researchers are exploring whether folic acid can affect the development of an area of the brain that has been linked to schizophrenia.

To do this, they’re analysing a large amount of MRI scan data from children born before and after the US folic acid programme began, to see whether indications of possible future schizophrenia have reduced. 

And they’re also looking to see whether adolescents who are at higher genetic risk of schizophrenia may show beneficial changes in their MRI scans if they were exposed to higher folic acid levels in the womb.

The potential

With few effective treatments available for schizophrenia, research into preventing the condition has a crucial role to play.

The findings of this study will show if an environmental change – the introduction of folic acid to grain products – has affected the development of the brain.

And if the connections it reveals are clear, it has the potential to lead to more targeted support for people most at risk of schizophrenia.

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