A new clue to the origin of schizophrenia has been discovered here - the possibility that some of this devastating mental illness is seasonal in origin and triggered by virus infections.
A St. Elizabeths Hospital psychiatrist and two coworkers have found first that more Americans with schizophrenia are born in the winter and spring than at any other time of year.
Second, this psychiatrist, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, seems to be finding that many schizophrenics have evidence in their bloodstream or spinal fluid of past or longstanding viral disease, the kind of disease most common in the winter-spring months when more schizophrenics are born then in other months.
"What we have," he said yesterday, "is one very clear finding" (the apparent seasonal factor) and a "candidate" for an explanation (the fact that one-third of the chronic schizophrenics he has tested so far have signs of viral infections).
Torrey's studies have been made at the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and St. Elizabeths.
Both have numerous patients who are what he calls "multiple-admission schizophrencs." persons hospitalized again and again with this illness, schizophrenics make up half the population of most mental hospitals.
Schizophrenia is a discase marked by withdrawal from reality, confusion, flat and often inappropriate emotions and, often hallucinations.
The classic explanation for schizophrenia, as for most mental illness was that it was emotional or caused by painful experiences. Today scientists are looking hard for biochemical aberrations as causes for mental illness or as the added factor that makes people susceptible to emotional trauma.
"I don't think there will be 'one cause' for all schiziphrenia," Torrey said. "I think we may be on teh trail of one of the causes.
Since 1929, there had been scattered European reports that schizophrenics were born in disproportionate numbers in winter and spring. But the numbers reported were small, and the reports had little impact.
Torrey, his wife, Barbara Boyle Torrey of the Office of the Management and Budget and Dr. Michael Peterson of the Bureau of Biologics collected data on 53,584 schizophrenics born between 1920 and 1955, and compared them with other persons born in the same states.
They found that there were about 5 per cent more schizophrenics born from December through May, and 6.9 per cent more in the peak months, March and April. These figures are considered statistically significant by medical statisticians.
The trend was most marked in New England and Midwestern states, far less so in the South, they reported in the September issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. In this area, only Virginia was studied. It showed an excess of such births only in January.
Torrey says studies of more than 150,000 schizophrenics in several sountries - by several scientists, by various methods - have shown more schizophrenic births during the winter and spring. In South Afica and Australia, where the seasons are reversed, such births peaked in May through October.
Many explanations are possible, he says - seasonal nutritional deficiencies of mothers; climate effects on human egg cells or chromosomes; and seasonal variations in the amounts of sun, heat, cold, and metals or chemicals in the environment.
But Torrey and five other doctores from the National Institute of Mental Health, Bureau of Biologics, Navy and University of Maryland - Peterson, William Brannon, William Carpenter, Robert Post and Daniel van Kammen - are about to report finding antidistease substances (antibodies and ummunoglobulins) produced in response to viral infection in the blood serum or spinal fluid of 6 out of 17 schizophrenics at the NIH Clinical Center.
Most recently, in work still under way, Torrey believes he is seeing similar abnormalities in another third of the first 30 St. Elizabeth's patients he has examined.
"What we are actually looking for is a slow model for schizophrenia," he said, "the action of a virus on the unborn child or infant or mother, then manifestation of the symptoms years later. This is a model that we know does opearte in some other diseases."
Among the many needs in fighting mental illness, he adds, is the need to expand such biological research. "Without more research," he said, "we will never know the cause of this terrible illness. Until we know the cause it will be hard to treat, and it will be impossible to prevent."