Philipp Mitteröcker


Modelling the Evolution of Schizophrenia

Unit for Theoretical Biology, Department of Evolutionary Biology
University of Vienna


How has schizophrenia, a condition that significantly reduces an individual's evolutionary fitness, remained common across generations and cultures? Numerous theories about the evolution of schizophrenia have been proposed, most of which are not consistent with modern epidemiological and genetic evidence. I will briefly review this evidence and explore the cliff edge model of schizophrenia. It suggests that schizophrenia is the extreme manifestation of a polygenic trait or a combination of traits that, within a normal range of variation, confer cognitive, linguistic, and/or social advantages. Only beyond a certain threshold, these traits precipitate the onset of schizophrenia and reduce fitness. I provide the first mathematical model of this qualitative concept and show that it requires only very weak positive selection of the underlying trait(s) to explain today’s schizophrenia prevalence. This prediction, along with expectations about the effect size of schizophrenia risk alleles, are surprisingly well matched by empirical evidence. The cliff edge model predicts a dynamic change of selection of risk alleles, which explains the contradictory findings of evolutionary genetic studies.