Abnormal Immune Response to Epstein-Barr Virus Linked With Schizophrenia

January 14, 2019

People with schizophrenia had increased levels of antibodies against the Epstein-Barr virus, the herpes virus behind infectious mononucleosis, in a study published online in Schizophrenia Bulletin.

“We found that individuals with schizophrenia had an unusual response to Epstein-Barr virus,” said senior study author Robert Yolken, MD, a neurovirology professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. “This indicated that the prevention and treatment of Epstein-Barr virus might represent an approach for the prevention and treatment of serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.”

In severe cases, the virus can spread to the central nervous system and cause persistent infection.

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Researchers conducted the study to analyze the relationship between persistent Epstein-Barr virus infection and schizophrenia in 743 people—432 people with schizophrenia and 311 people without a history of any psychiatric disorder, who served as control subjects.

When researchers compared antibodies against components of Epstein-Barr virus in the two participant groups, they found people with schizophrenia were 1.7 to 2.3 times more likely to have heightened levels of some Epstein-Barr virus antibodies, compared with the control group. People with schizophrenia, however, did not show an increase in antibodies to related viruses, such as varicella/chicken pox or herpes simplex type 1/cold sore virus, according to the study.

Researchers also looked at participants’ DNA to gauge genetic risk for schizophrenia. They found people with increased Epstein-Barr virus antibodies and increased genetic risk for schizophrenia had a more than 8 times higher risk of being in the study’s schizophrenia group, compared with control subjects.

Some 10% of participants with schizophrenia demonstrated heightened levels of both antibodies and genetic risk, compared with just 1% of control subjects, researchers reported.

—Jolynn Tumolo


Dickerson F, Jones-Brando L, Ford G, et al. Schizophrenia is associated with an aberrant immune response to Epstein-Barr virus. Schizophrenia Bulletin. 2018 November 20;[Epub ahead of print].

Schizophrenia linked with abnormal immune response to Epstein-Barr virus [press release]. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Medicine; January 9, 2019.