Why are immigrants at increased risk for psychosis? Vitamin D insufficiency, epigenetic mechanisms, or both?
Dealberto MJ. Department of Psychiatry, Ottawa Hospital and University of Ottawa, General Campus, 501 Smyth Road, Ottawa, Ont., Canada K1H 8L6. dealbert [at] uottawa.ca (replace [at] with @)
European researchers have observed that schizophrenia is 3 times more frequent in immigrants than in native-born subjects. This increased risk is even higher in dark-skinned immigrants, and the second generation is more affected than the first one. Immigrant status is an important environmental risk factor not only for schizophrenia but also for other psychoses.
The explanations proposed to date have been mainly related to epidemiological biases and psychological reasons, such as racism or social defeat, but no biological hypotheses have been tested so far. This article proposes two biological hypotheses related to changes in sun exposure, changes in diet, and stress associated with immigration, which would explain the increased risk for psychosis associated with immigrant status.
(1) Vitamin D insufficiency has been proposed as a risk factor for schizophrenia. The main source of vitamin D is through photosynthesis by sun exposure, and dark skins need more sun exposure to maintain adequate blood levels. Vitamin D insufficiency in adulthood could explain why dark-skinned immigrants develop psychosis when moving to high latitude countries, and its insufficiency during pregnancy could explain why the observed risk is higher in the second generation. (2) The second hypothesis is that of epigenetics, with psychosis resulting from modifications in gene expression caused by changes in diet and/or stress related to immigration. The role of homocysteine and the vitamin B-complex, especially folic acid, in these changes in DNA transcription would vary according to the polymorphism of the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene.
The vitamin D insufficiency and epigenetics hypotheses are consistent with yet unexplained findings well known in the epidemiology of schizophrenia, such as the increased risk in the urban environment, the excess of winter births, the excess of schizophrenia births after maternal famine, and the shorter interbirth period before a schizophrenia birth. In order to test these hypotheses, epidemiological studies of psychosis and immigration should include objective measures of skin color, which is predicted to be a more important risk factor than ethnicity.
They should measure vitamin D, homocysteine and vitamin B-complex status and assess the polymorphisms of the vitamin D receptors and the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene. If confirmed, these hypotheses would lead to effective and inexpensive preventive measures which would markedly decrease the rates of psychosis and schizophrenia, as well as the burden and stigma of these diseases, and greatly improve the mental health of immigrants.