Sheppard Pratt Health System Research Shows Schizophrenia is Associated with Abnormal Immune Response to Epstein-Barr Virus

Release date: November 21, 2018

New research from Sheppard Pratt Health System, performed in collaboration with researchers at Johns Hopkins and the Broad Institute, shows that individuals with schizophrenia have increased levels of antibodies to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a human herpesvirus that is the cause of infectious mononucleosis. EBV can also infect the central nervous system and cause persistent infection.

While schizophrenia has some genetic associations, genes that have been found to date explain only a portion of the disease risk. Environmental exposures, including to some infectious agents, have also been identified in previous studies as increasing the risk for schizophrenia.

Researchers at Sheppard Pratt conducted a study consisting of 743 individuals—432 with a schizophrenia diagnosis and 311 without a history of a psychiatric disorder to serve as a control group. The individuals with schizophrenia had more than 3.5-fold odds of having increased levels of some EBV antibodies as compared to the controls. Individuals who also had both evidence of increased genetic risk and increased levels of antibodies to some EBV proteins had more than 8-fold odds of being in the schizophrenia group as compared to controls. On the other hand, the individuals with schizophrenia did not have an increase of antibodies to related viruses.

“Our study is promising as we look at other potential explanations and factors for the increased risk of developing schizophrenia beyond genetics,” said Dr. Faith Dickerson, a clinical psychologist at Sheppard Pratt and lead researcher on this study. “By further studying and understanding the role of EBV infection, there is an opportunity to develop new methods for the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia.”

The transmission of EBV may be prevented by hygienic techniques. In addition, vaccines for the prevention of EBV and new methods of treatment are under investigation.

The study was conducted by The Stanley Research Program at Sheppard Pratt; the Stanley Neurovirology Laboratory, Department of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; VanPelt Biosciences; and the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

The article was published online on November 20 in the Oxford Press Journal Schizophrenia Bulletin (Schizophrenia Bulletin, sby164,

About Sheppard Pratt Health System

Sheppard Pratt Health System is the largest private, nonprofit provider of mental health, substance use, developmental disability, special education, and social services in the country. A nationwide resource, Sheppard Pratt provides services across a comprehensive continuum of care, spanning both hospital- and community-based resources. Since its founding in 1853, Sheppard Pratt has been innovating the field through research, best practice implementation, and a focus on improving the quality of mental health care on a global level. Sheppard Pratt has been consistently ranked as a top national psychiatric hospital by U.S. News & World Report for nearly 30 years.      

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