Friday 4 January 2019

Vitamin D deficiency in the mother linked to schizophrenia in the child

Australian and Danish research has revealed that new-born babies with a vitamin D deficiency are at an increased risk of schizophrenia later in life. In some cases, vitamin D supplementation can help prevent the development of this brain disease. 


Vitamin D is not only important for healthy bones, but as a neurosteroid also plays an important role in the growing and adult brain. Its role includes stimulating and protecting nerves and it can change neurotransmission and neural plasticity. Increasing numbers of epidemiological studies indicate that a vitamin D deficiency is associated with psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative illnesses, including schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a brain disorder with symptoms like hallucinations, delusions and cognitive impairments.

A vitamin D deficiency is a global problem and a foetus is completely dependent on the mother’s vitamin D status. [1] In this study at The University of Queensland (UQ, Australia) and Aarhus University (Denmark), it was discovered that new-born babies with a vitamin D deficiency were 44 percent more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia in their adult lives, in comparison to adults with a normal vitamin D status. The study was published in Scientific Reports. [2]

Responsible for 8% of cases of schizophrenia

The study was based on the blood samples of 2,602 Danish new-born babies between 1981 and 2000, who had a low vitamin D status as a baby and developed schizophrenia as young adults. These blood samples were compared to those of other individuals who were identical in terms of gender and date of birth and who had not developed schizophrenia. The results of this study confirmed the outcomes of a past study, also performed by UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute. [3]

The researchers calculated that the neonatal vitamin D deficiency was probably responsible for 8 percent of schizophrenia cases in Denmark. They say that, in some cases, this development can help to prevent this disease by treating the vitamin deficiency at a very early stage in life. This can be compared to folic acid supplementation, which can help to prevent spina bifida. 

Fewer hours of sunshine or the use of sunscreen

The studies built on past research, in which it was proven that there is an increased risk of schizophrenia when someone is born in the winter or spring and lives in a country at a higher latitude, such as Denmark. This resulted in the hypothesis by the researchers that the low vitamin D status (due to the lack of sun) could be a possible cause of the risk of schizophrenia. They also reported that, although Australia has much sunnier weather, pregnant women can also still suffer from vitamin D deficiencies due to the practice of avoiding the sun or sunbathing safely using sunscreen.

Other risk factors

Schizophrenia is associated with many more risk factors. For example, another study revealed that a diet with high levels of refined carbohydrates, sugars and saturated fats is also a significant risk factor. This study [4] reports that an unhealthy diet reduces the production of BDNF and NGF (neurotrophins, or nerve cell stimulating factors), which can lead to reduced dendrite and synapse formation and then to the development of schizophrenia.


[1] Groves, N.J., Vitamin D as a neurosteroid affecting the developing and adult brain, Annu Rev Nutr. 2014;34:117-41. doi: 10.1146/annurev-nutr-071813-105557, en

[2] Darryl W. Eyles et al, The association between neonatal vitamin D status and risk of schizophrenia, Scientific Reports (2018).  DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-35418-z 

[3] John McGrath et al., Neonatal Vitamin D Status and Risk of Schizophrenia, A Population-Based Case-Control Study, Archives of General Psychiatry, 2010;67(9):889-894. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.110 

[4] Peet M., Nutrition and schizophrenia: beyond omega-3 fatty acids. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids (2004, Apr;70(4):417-22),