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Wild new study suggests blindness may protect against mental illness

Published Feb 15th, 2019 1:46PM EST
blindness mental illness
Image: Sander Koning/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

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Schizophrenia is a puzzling disorder for medical professionals. It’s a mental illness that can be treated but nobody really knows what causes it in the first place, posing a challenge from a preventative standpoint. Nobody knows what signs to look for early on that reliably predict the development of the disorder, but a new study suggests a rather unlikely link.

The research, which was conducted by a team at the University of Western Australia, reveals that individuals born blind or who become blind very shortly after birth may actually be protected from schizophrenia as well as other mental disorders. The only problem? Scientists have no idea why.

Spotting the link between blindness and protection against psychotic disorders proved to be rather simple for the researchers. The team studied a wealth of data from public health records over a 21-year period and realized that not a single person who was born blind or developed blindness very early in life had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The reason is something that researchers can’t say for certain, but they do have a theory. The team believes that because the loss of vision has been shown to redirect brain power to other faculties, the brains of blind individuals may be better equipped to fight off such mental disorders.

“It’s very difficult to say what the exact mechanism is but we think that the protective effect for schizophrenia is related to some kind of compensatory cortical reorganisation in the brain that’s happening in response to having congenital or early cortical blindness,” Professor Vera Morgan, lead author of the work, said in a statement. “As a result, some functions that are impaired in schizophrenia may actually be enhanced in people with congenital or early cortical blindness.”

The research is compelling, but there’s still more work to be done. The team hopes that continued work in this area may lead to preventative treatments that could reduce or eliminate symptoms later in life.