Latest Mental Health News
Can having a pet dog early in life protect you from schizophrenia? That's the surprising result of a Johns Hopkins study released this month.
Researchers interviewed more than 1,300 adults, about 1/3 of whom had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. They asked whether a cat or dog was in their home before their 13th birthday, and when.
After running the numbers, and controlling for factors like gender and birthplace, they found a nearly 25 percent decreased risk of a schizophrenia diagnosis for those with a pet dog in the home before age 13.
The study found no statistically significant relationship between exposure to cats and later schizophrenia. It also found no relationship between having either cats or dogs in the home and a person's likelihood of developing bipolar disorder.
The scientists don't know why early exposure to dogs might protect against schizophrenia. But they offered several possible explanations. For example, there may be something else about dog ownership that protects against the mental illness, because owning a dog also says something about where you were likely raised and your family's economic status.
But the researchers also pointed out that dogs may have a biological influence on our bodies in several ways. In particular, pet pups have been shown in other studies to improve immune function, reducing the risk of asthma and food allergies. Pet dogs may also help improve a child's so-called "microbiome," which refers to the colonies of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that live inside of us.
What Is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a severe, chronic disability that causes psychosis, according to psychiatrist Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD, a MedicineNet medical author. Psychosis refers to losing touch with reality, and schizophrenic episodes can make it difficult to separate reality from unreal experiences.
The cause of schizophrenia seems to be complicated, Dr. Dryden-Edwards said. We know that it is not directly passed down from parent to child, but people who have immediate relatives with psychosis are more vulnerable to developing the condition.
There also seem to be various biological vulnerabilities that can raise a person's risk.
"People who have abnormalities in the brain neurochemical dopamine and lower brain matter in some areas of the brain are at higher risk for developing the condition," Dr. Dryden-Edwards said. "Other brain issues that are thought to predispose people to developing schizophrenia include abnormalities in the connections between different areas of the brain, called default mode network connectivity."
She notes that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are genetically similar, sharing many of the same risk genes. But the two conditions have their own unique genetic factors as well.