Schizophrenia is a terrifying disorder that can ravage its victims' perceptions of reality. It can cause people to hear voices, to believe that they are being controlled or plotted against, to engage in repetitive behaviors, to garble their speech or hallucinate. For the approximately one percent of Americans who have the disease, there is no cure—only treatments to repress the symptoms. Researchers say this is largely because we don't understand precisely what causes the disease.
But as it turns out, there's a lot more that we don't understand about schizophrenia than its cause. According to new research, our very understanding of the definition of schizophrenia is flawed. As USA Today reports, schizophrenia is not a single disorder, in fact, but eight different disorders that have been lumped together under a single heading throughout history.
Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine arrived at this startling conclusion after noticing that people with schizophrenia who suffered from certain sets of symptoms also shared a similar genetic profile, USA Today describes. These researchers compiled a genetic database of DNA from more than 4,000 people with schizophrenia and 3,800 non-schizophrenic people. The next step was to design an algorithm that allowed them to predict with a certain amount of confidence whether someone would have schizophrenia, based on their genes. Their findings suggest that, rather than a single gene triggering the disorder, "genes work together like a winning or losing combination of cards in poker," the researchers told USA Today.
Those different combinations, they also found, ultimately determined which symptoms someone would suffer from—paranoid delusions, hearing voices or speech impediments, for example—and led the team to conclude that schizophrenia is actually a series of eight similar but distinct mental disorders.
The researchers told USA Today that they hope this finding could improve the "relatively primitive" ways that we currently diagnose schizophrenia, as well as amend the "trial and error" way that treatment is usually prescribed. Ultimately, their findings could "allow for the development of a personalized diagnosis, opening the door to treating the cause, rather than just the symptoms, of schizophrenia," they told USA Today, especially if doctors can begin early interventions for those identified as being at high risk.