Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Novelty of Schizophrenia

May 1st, 2009 · 3 Comments

An intriguing debate (PDF) over whether schizophrenia is a uniquely modern disease. Given the ailment’s genetic origins, Microkhan has long assumed that it’s been with our species since time immemorial. But based on their examination from 15th-century Islamic medical textbooks, a pair of South Carolina doctors disagree:

Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu (1385-1470) was a general physician who practiced during the 15th century in central Anatolia, which is now Turkey. Written in Turkish with Sabuncuoglu’s own calligraphy, Cerrahiyyetu’l-Haniyye (Imperial Surgery) is the first known illustrated textbook of surgery and contains colored, handmade miniatures of surgical techniques and instruments (6, 7). The book contains Sabuncuoglu’s
descriptions of numerous medical conditions and their treatments. Several neurological conditions, including migraine headaches, epilepsy, and tremor are described. The psychiatric conditions described are melancholy (mal-i hulya) and forgetfulness (unutsaguluk). We have carefully reviewed each illustration of Sabuncuoglu’s masterpiece and report that a description of a condition that resembles schizophrenia is not present.

In the rebuttal, it is claimed that schizophrenics may have been shunted into “hospital-villages” where they were essentially forgotten.

More on the search for schizophrenica’s genetic origins here. Microkhan is struck by the apparent link between the increasing complexity of modern life and the rise in schizophrenia diagnoses. Might environmental stress somehow “switch on” a genetic mechanism that creates paranoia and delusion?


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    Some have identified nostalgia as a uniquely modern malady, tying it to the disorientation of time and space brought on by technology and capitalism. Microkhanners might like Svetlana Boym’s interesting book, which considers soldiers’ experiences during the Thirty Years War, supposedly when nostalgia started being described and designated.

  • Jordan

    Personally, I’m intrigued by evidence pointing to infections by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Beyond correlational studies, it already known that T. gondii causes behavior effects in rats. Rats infected with T. gondii are less afraid of cats, which makes them more likely to be eaten. This is because the parasite needs to be transferred to a cat to complete its life cycle. Secondly, there was a study that found that many anti-psychosis medications were as effective as anti-T. gondii medications in preventing behavioral effects in infected rats. Lastly, many of those anti-psychotic medications were found to kill T. gondii in culture.


    While I’m going to guess that this is a case of genetics interacting with the environment, in this case an infection, it’s an interesting new layer in what we know about mental health.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: The Thirty Years War is about as Microkhan as you can get. Thanks for the link.

    @Jordan: I’ve actually been toying with some magazine feature ideas re: schizophrenia (which explains my interest here). Hadn’t yet come across the T. gondii theory–thanks for passing it along. Raises an interesting point: Are there any prophylactic measures folks can take to protect themselves (or, more accurately, their children) from the parasite? And how does the theory tie into the typical late-adolescent onset of the disease?