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Could we prevent schizophrenia?

Research award Fellows Award programme

Funding period2013 - 2016

InstitutionHarvard Medical School

LocationUSA

Conditions

Dr Joshua Roffman sought to find out if 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.

With this project, they took 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 explored whether folic acid can affect the development of an area of the brain that has been linked to schizophrenia.

To do this, they analysed 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. 

They also looked 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.

Results 

Joshua found that prenatal exposure to folic acid does alter brain development – in ways that appear to protect against the development of psychosis. His study adds critical biological evidence to the case to prove folic acid’s potential role in preventing severe mental illness .

Where next?

The potential of this project is huge - just recently, the UK Government announced that all flour is to be fortified with folic acid in order to reduce the number of babies born in the UK with serious physical defects. The case for fortification to improve mental health outcomes could lead to further significant policy changes. 

By proving these factors are clearly connected, Joshua's results have the potential to lead to more targeted support for people most at risk of schizophrenia, playing a crucial role in developing more effective treatments. 

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