The cat virus theory of schizophrenia
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey is the guru of the NAMI family movement. Over the past 50 years he has investigated mental illness, researched the causes, worked on the wards at St. Elizabeth's, worked for the National Institute of Mental Health, run the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., where they do brain studies, founded the Treatment Advocacy Coalition (TAC), which advocates for states to change outpatient treatment laws, all the while speaking out and writing books and articles at every opportunity. Many see him as the most provocative and accomplished psychiatrist in America.
He does all that with a passion and personality that gets him both high praise and in a lot of hot water with his allies and coworkers, his friends and supporters, and his bosses in top circles in government.
So we have a controversial genius moving on his own mad track to discover the connections of infectious agents with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder--the severest and most exasperatingly hard to understand of the brain disorders we call mental illnesses. And he's our man.
Here is a short recital of some themes in his research focus. (Learn more from Wikipedia—the internet encyclopedia; also from an interview with Fuller Torrey on SchizophreniaConnection.com (August 26, 2007); an article in NY Times Magazine, Feb . 22, 1998; and an article in Stanford Magazine called Brain Storm, Jan-Feb. 2003.
You can pick up almost anywhere with Dr. Torrey's amazing history. First, his fascination with the cat theory, a zany idea both for those who might own a cat and not have the illness and for those who have the illness and don't own a cat:
The cat virus connection
Fuller Torrey thinks viruses spread schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; specifically a domestic cat parasite called toxoplasma gondii. As reported, he says: “We've done two studies on exposure to cats in childhood of people who have schizophrenia and it was increased. We now have 46 studies that have been done looking at antibodies against toxoplasma gondii in individuals with schizophrenia and they (antibodies) are clearly increased. If we're right on this, we are guessing that the transmission takes place probably early in childhood.”
The cat parasite can lead to toxoplasmosis. Up to one-third of the world's population is estimated to carry a toxoplasma infection. Torrey and coworker Robert Yolken publish studies on seasonal variation with the infections. They're even using toxoplasmosa gondii agents (antibiotics) as an add-on treatment for schizophrenia. He believes that infectious agents will eventually explain “the vast majority” of schizophrenia cases. Has anybody heard of that? Is anybody interested?
“We've not proven it yet, so you should not go home and kill your cat,” Torrey says. “And if you are over the age of 30 and you have a nice cat, that's fine. On the other hand, if you want to minimize any chances in your children, then getting a cat for a young child is probably not the right thing to do.” (Opponents say he's off base. See Wikipedia article on Fuller Torrey for this discussion)
The brains delivered by Fed Ex
Fuller Torrey collects brains at the Stanley Medical Institute in Washington, which he heads. His team receives postmortem brains often on weekdays via Fed Ex for their brain bank, the largest in the world. He now has over 600 brains in his collection which Torrey calls “first-rate, brains of people younger and not dead long,” the kind of brains that “would be full of unaltered proteins and neurotransmitters, viruses and cytokines that might hold the answers to schizophrenia's cause. The only schizophrenic brains available before this have been very old and not in very good shape. They came from hospitals and nursing homes, from patients so elderly that by the time they died the brain had atrophied.”
Torrey gets the brains donated from medical examiners offices and “has built a national network that collects brains of mentally ill people who have died in their 20s, 30s and 40s, from suicide and heart failure, in car crashes and fires.” He employs several pathologists around the country to work hunting brains. The frozen brains are shipped to his lab, where, he says, “we have 44 freezers just full of brain.” While he uses some himself, he ships most of them free to researchers world wide. (See the NY Times piece mentioned above about this)
At the Stanley lab, the brain tissues are scrutinized by a team of researchers to identify cell damage that may point to viral infection. They are also searching for antibodies in brain cells and for chemical substances released when the body fights infections. The team hopes that finding the viral culprits could lead to effective new drugs and perhaps even a vaccine for schizophrenia. These studies are not conclusive. (See Stanford Magazine article cited above)
Torrey's twin studies
Fuller Torrey was principal investigator of a NIMH schizophrenia/bipolar disorder twin study conducted at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He co-published several studies on structural brain differences between affected and unaffected siblings. He differed from his collaborators in arguing that the genetic heritability of schizophrenia was lower than typically estimated. Disagreements followed with those reviewing his data. (see Wikipedia article)
Some of us in NAMI were first attracted to Dr. Torrey by his twin studies, which seemed to set the odds for inheritance of schizophrenia. He wrote in Surviving Schizophrenia (1995) that his study of identical twins shows that when one twin develops schizophrenia, the second twin has about a 30 percent chance of also becoming affected. Among fraternal twins the chance of the second twin becoming affected is about 10 percent, the same as for brothers and sisters.
While genes play some role in the development of schizophrenia, Torrey remarks, there is much debate about what that role may be. “If schizophrenia is truly a genetically transmitted disease, it does not fit existing dominant or recessive patterns. It is also difficult to understand why the disease has not died out since people with schizophrenia reproduce at an extremely low rate. Furthermore, first-cousin marriages or other inbreeding do not seem to affect the rate; the incidence of schizophrenia is not higher in areas where such inbreeding is higher. Finally, it should be remembered that only about one-third of individuals with schizophrenia have a family history of this disease, which means that two-thirds do not.” (See Surviving Schizophrenia, page 156).
Hence, we might understand Torrey's continued fascination with viruses, more than genes, as causes of schizophrenia, even if the findings are less conclusive. (Roy Neville)