Evidence that transition from health to psychotic disorder can be traced to semi-ubiquitous environmental effects operating against background genetic risk

PLoS One. 2013 Nov 6;8(11):e76690. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0076690. eCollection 2013.


Background: In order to assess the importance of environmental and genetic risk on transition from health to psychotic disorder, a prospective study of individuals at average (n = 462) and high genetic risk (n = 810) was conducted.

Method: A three-year cohort study examined the rate of transition to psychotic disorder. Binary measures indexing environmental exposure (combining urban birth, cannabis use, ethnicity and childhood trauma) and proxy genetic risk (high-risk sibling status) were used to model transition.

Results: The majority of high-risk siblings (68%) and healthy comparison subjects (60%) had been exposed to one or more environmental risks. The risk of transition in siblings (n = 9, 1.1%) was higher than the risk in healthy comparison subjects (n = 2, 0.4%; OR(adj) = 2.2,95%CI:5-10.3). All transitions (100%) were associated with environmental exposure, compared to 65% of non-transitions (p = 0.014), with the greatest effects for childhood trauma (OR(adj) = 34.4,95%CI:4.4-267.4), cannabis use (OR = 4.1,95%CI:1.1, 15.4), minority ethnic group (OR = 3.8,95%CI:1.2,12.8) and urban birth (OR = 3.7,95%CI:0.9,15.4). The proportion of transitions in the population attributable to environmental and genetic risk ranged from 28% for minority ethnic group, 45% for urban birth, 57% for cannabis use, 86% for childhood trauma, and 50% for high-risk sibling status. Nine out of 11 transitions (82%) were exposed to both genetic and environmental risk, compared to only 43% of non-transitions (p = 0.03).

Conclusion: Environmental risk associated with transition to psychotic disorder is semi-ubiquitous regardless of genetic high risk status. Careful prospective documentation suggests most transitions can be attributed to powerful environmental effects that become detectable when analysed against elevated background genetic risk, indicating gene-environment interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cannabis / adverse effects
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Disease Progression
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Female
  • Gene-Environment Interaction*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychotic Disorders / etiology
  • Psychotic Disorders / genetics*
  • Risk Factors
  • Young Adult

Grant support

This work was supported by the Geestkracht program of the Dutch Health Research Council (ZON-MW, grant number 10-000-1002) and matching funds from participating universities and mental health care organizations (Site Amsterdam: Academic Psychiatric Centre AMC, Ingeest, Arkin, Dijk en Duin, Rivierduinen, Erasmus MC, GGZ Noord Holland Noord; Site Utrecht: University Medical Centre Utrecht, Altrecht, Symfora, Meerkanten, Riagg Amersfoort, Delta; Site Groningen: University Medical Centre Groningen, Lentis, GGZ Friesland, GGZ Drenthe, Dimence, Mediant, GGZ De Grote Rivieren and Parnassia psycho-medical centre; Site Maastricht: Maastricht University Medical Centre, GGZ Eindhoven, GGZ Midden-Brabant, GGZ Oost-Brabant, GGZ Noord- Midden Limburg, Mondriaan Zorggroep, Prins Clauscentrum Sittard, RIAGG Roermond, Universitair Centrum Sint-Jozef Kortenberg, CAPRI University of Antwerp, PC Ziekeren Sint-Truiden, PZ Sancta Maria Sint-Truiden, GGZ Overpelt, OPZ Rekem). The analyses were supported by unrestricted grants from Jansen-Cilag, Eli Lilly and Company, Astra-Zeneca and Lundbeck. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Program under grant agreement No. HEALTH-F2-2009-241909 (Project EU-GEI). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.