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Childhood schizophrenia

Childhood schizophrenia
Synonym Childhood type schizophrenia; schizophrenia, childhood type; childhood-onset schizophrenia (COS); very early-onset schizophrenia (VEOS); schizophrenic syndrome of childhood
Artistic view of how the world feels like with schizophrenia - journal.pmed.0020146.g001.jpg
Self-portrait of a person with schizophrenia, representing that individual's perception of the distorted experience of reality in the disorder.
Specialty Child psychiatry (EU), Child and adolescent psychiatry (USA)
Symptoms Hallucinations, delusions, disorganized behavior or catatonia, negative symptoms (i.e., avolition or reduced affect display)[1]
Usual onset Before the age of 13 years
Types Episodic-progredient/shiftlike childhood schizophrenia (malignant, paranoid and slow-progressive sub-types), continuous childhood schizophrenia, recurrent childhood schizophrenia (the rarest form – 5 % of all cases)[2]
Similar conditions Major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder with psychotic or catatonic features, brief psychotic disorder, delusional disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder, autism spectrum disorder or communication disorders, other mental disorders associated with a psychotic episode
Medication Antipsychotics
Frequency ⅕ of all forms of psychosis of the schizophrenia spectrum[2]; 1.66:1000 among children (0–14 years)[2]

Childhood schizophrenia (also known as childhood-onset schizophrenia, and very early-onset schizophrenia) is a schizophrenia spectrum disorder that is characterized by hallucinations, disorganized speech, delusions, catatonic behavior and "negative symptoms", such as inappropriate or blunted affect and avolition with onset before 13 years of age.[1][3] Schizophrenic autism may be presented.[4] The term "childhood-onset schizophrenia" and "very early-onset schizophrenia" are used to identify patients in whom the disorder manifests before the age of 13.[3]

The disorder presents symptoms such as auditory and visual hallucinations, strange thoughts or feelings, and abnormal behavior, profoundly impacting the child's ability to function and sustain normal interpersonal relationships. Delusions are often not systematized and vague.[5] Among the actual psychotic symptoms seen in childhood schizophrenia auditory hallucinations are the most common. They are often presented in relatively simple form of akoasms (auditory hallucinations, such as noise, shots, knocks, etc.). Many of these children also have symptoms of irritability, searching for imaginary objects, or low performance. It typically presents after the age of seven.[6] About 50% of young children diagnosed with schizophrenia experience severe neuropsychiatric symptoms.[7] Studies have demonstrated that diagnostic criteria are similar to those of adult schizophrenia.[8][9] Diagnosis is based on behavior observed by caretakers and, in some cases depending on age, self reports. Less than 5% of people with schizophrenia see their first symptoms before age 18.

Schizophrenia has no definite cause; however, certain risk factors such as family history seem to correlate. There is no known cure, but childhood schizophrenia is controllable with the help of behavioral therapies and medications.

Age of first episode of psychosis

"Early onset schizophrenia" (EOS) is not childhood schizophrenia, because this term is used to identify adolescence patients who develop first episode of psychosis before the age of 18. Childhood schizophrenia manifests before the age of 13, so it's correct names are "childhood-onset schizophrenia" (COS) and "very early-onset schizophrenia" (VEOS).

Adolescents (teenagers) are persons between the ages of 13 and 18.[10] Children are defined as persons under the age of 13, so the term "early onset schizophrenia" (EOS) is not not appropriate in the article about childhood schizophrenia.


The first works by Sante De Sanctis about child psychoses similar to Emil Kraepelin's "dementia praecox" (the term from Latin a "premature dementia" or "precocious madness"; was replaced by "schizophrenia" by Eugen Bleuler in 1908). Sante De Sanctis (1862–1935) discovered "dementia praecocissima" (from Latin "premature maddness") in 1905, it was a childhood type of dementia praecox.[11] According to Sante De Sanctis, this psychiatric condition is characterized by present of catatonia.[12] Philip Bromberg thinks that "dementia praecocissima" in some cases indistinguishable from childhoold schizophrenia, and Leo Kanner believed that "dementia praecocissima" includes a lot of pathological conditions.[12]

Julius Raecke (1872–1930) found children with catatonic disorders. Raecke gave a report of ten cases of catatonia in children in 1909.[13] He worked at the Psychiatric and Neurological Hospital of University of Kiel. Catatonia occurred in children in his hospital. Catatonic symptoms were the same as described earlier by Dr. Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum.[13] For Raecke, most characteristic of catatonia were: stereotypies, bizarre urges, blind apathy and impulsive motor eruptions.[13] He also saw refusal to eat (negativism), stupor with mutism, uncleanliness, indications of waxy flexibility and unmotivated eccentricity, silly and childish behavior.[13]

Another researcher was Karl Pönitz (1888–1973) from Leipzig, who published a paper "early catatonia" in 1913.[13] This paper was about a boy from the age of twelve who had "typical catatonia"; he also experienced symptoms of schizophrenia.[13] That's a typical case of childhood catatonic schizophrenia.

Theodor Heller (1869–1938) discovered a new syndrome dementia infantilis (from Latin "infantile madness") in 1909.[13] In the modern ICD-10 "Heller syndrome" is classified under the rubric F84.3 "other childhood disintegrative disorder".

Until the late nineteenth century, children were often diagnosed as suffering from psychosis like schizophrenia, but instead were said to suffer from "pubescent" or "developmental" insanity. Through the 1950s, childhood psychosis began to become more and more common, and psychiatrists began to take a deeper look into the issue.[14]

Before 1980 the literature on "childhood schizophrenia" often described a "heterogeneous mixture" of different disorders, such as autism, symbiotic psychosis or psychotic disorder other than schizophrenia, pervasive developmental disorders and dementia infantilis. At the current time, however, some researchers, regarded autism (autistic disorder) and schizophrenia as two distinct entities.

Signs and symptoms

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that is expressed in abnormal mental functions and disturbed behavior.

The signs and symptoms of childhood schizophrenia are nearly the same as adult-onset schizophrenia. Some of the earliest signs that a young child may develop schizophrenia are lags in language and motor development. Some children engage in activities such as flapping the arms or rocking, and may appear anxious, confused, or disruptive on a regular basis. Children may experience symptoms such as hallucinations, but these are often difficult to differentiate from just normal imagination or child play. It is often difficult for children to describe their hallucinations or delusions, making very early-onset schizophrenia especially difficult to diagnose in the earliest stages. The cognitive abilities of children with schizophrenia may also often be lacking, with 20% of patients showing borderline or full intellectual disability.[15]

Very early-onset schizophrenia refers to onset before the age of thirteen. The prodromal phase, which precedes psychotic symptoms, is characterized by deterioration in school performance, social withdrawal, disorganized or unusual behavior, a decreased ability to perform daily activities, a deterioration in self-care skills, bizarre hygiene and eating behaviors, changes in affect, a lack of impulse control, hostility and aggression, and lethargy.[15]

Auditory hallucinations are the most common "positive symptom" in children. Positive symptoms have come to mean psychopathological disorders that are actively expressed, such as delusions, hallucinations, thought disorder etc.). A child's auditory hallucinations may include voices that are conversing with each other or voices that are speaking directly to the children themselves. Many children with auditory hallucinations believe that if they do not listen to the voices, the voices will harm them or someone else. Tactile and visual hallucinations seem relatively rare. The children often attribute the hallucinatory voices to a variety of beings, including family members or other people, evil forces ("the Devil", "a witch", "a spirit"), animals, characters from horror movies (Bloody Mary, Freddy Krueger) and less clearly recognizable sources ("bad things," "the whispers").[16] Command auditory hallucinations (also known as imperative hallucinations) were common and experienced by more than ½ of the group in a research at the Bellevue Hospital Center's Children's Psychiatric Inpatient Unit.[16] And voices repeat and repeat: "Kill somebody!", "Kill her, kill her!".[16] Delusions are reported in more than half of children with schizophrenia, but they are usually less complex than those of adults.[16] Delusions often connected with hallucinatory experiences.[16] In a research delusions were characterized as persecutory for the most part, but some children reported delusions of control.[16] Many said they were being tortured by the beings causing their visual and auditory hallucinations, some thought that if they disobeying their voices would cause them harm.[16]

Some degree of thought disorder was observed in a test group of children in Bellevue Hospital. They displayed illogicality, tangentialiry (a serious disturbance in the associative thought process), and loosening of associations.

Negative ("deficit") symptoms in schizophrenia reflect mental deficit states such as apathy and aboulia, avolition, flattened affect, asthenia etc.


The ICD-10 criteria are typically used in most of the world, while the DSM-5 criteria are used in USA, ICD is prevailing in research studies. The ICD-10 criteria put more emphasis on Schneiderian first-rank symptoms. In practice, agreement between the two systems is high.[17] A 2015 systematic review investigated the diagnostic accuracy of first rank symptoms:

First rank symptoms for schizophrenia[18]
These studies were of limited quality. Results show correct identification of people with schizophrenia in about 75-95% of the cases although it is recommended to consult an additional specialist. The sensitivity of FRS was about 60%, so it can help diagnosis and, when applied with care, mistakes can be avoided. In lower resource settings, when more sophisticated methods are not available, first rank symptoms can be very valuable.[18]

According to the revised fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, three diagnostic criteria must be met:[19]

  1. Characteristic symptoms: Two or more of the following, each present for much of the time during a one-month period (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).
    If the delusions are judged to be bizarre, or hallucinations consist of hearing one voice participating in a running commentary of the patient's actions or of hearing two or more voices conversing with each other, only that symptom is required above. The speech disorganization criterion is only met if it is severe enough to substantially impair communication.
  2. Social or occupational dysfunction: For a significant portion of the time since the onset of the disturbance, one or more major areas of functioning such as work, interpersonal relations, or self-care, are markedly below the level achieved prior to the onset.
  3. Significant duration: Continuous signs of the disturbance persist for at least six months. This six-month period must include at least one month of symptoms (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).

If signs of disturbance are present for more than a month but less than six months, the diagnosis of schizophreniform disorder is applied.[19] Psychotic symptoms lasting less than a month may be diagnosed as brief psychotic disorder, and various conditions may be classed as psychotic disorder not otherwise specified. Schizophrenia cannot be diagnosed if symptoms of mood disorder are substantially present (although schizoaffective disorder could be diagnosed), or if symptoms of pervasive developmental disorder are present unless prominent delusions or hallucinations are also present, or if the symptoms are the direct physiological result of a general medical condition or a substance, such as abuse of a drug or medication.

The same criteria are used to diagnose children and adults.[8][9] Diagnosis is based on reports by parents or caretakers, teachers, school officials, and others close to the child.

A professional who believes a child has schizophrenia usually conducts a series of tests to rule out other causes of behavior, and pinpoint a diagnosis. Three different types of exams are performed: physical, laboratory, and psychological. Physical exams usually cover the basic assessments, including but not limited to; height, weight, blood pressure, and checking all vital signs to make sure the child is healthy.[20] Laboratory tests include electroencephalogram EEG screening and brain imaging scans. Blood tests are used to rule out alcohol or drug effects,[20] and thyroid hormone levels are tested to rule out hyper- or hypothyroidism.[medical citation needed] A psychologist or psychiatrist talks to a child about their thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns. They also inquire about the severity of the symptoms, and the effects they have on the child's daily life. They may also discuss thoughts of suicide or self-harm in these one-on-one sessions.[20] Some symptoms that may be looked at are early language delays, early motor development delays and school problems.[20]

Many of persons with childhood schizophrenia are initially misdiagnosed as having pervasive developmental disorders (autism spectrum disorder, for example).[3]

Differential diagnosis

Childhood schizophrenia onset is usually after a period of normal, or near normal, child development.[21] Before the first psychosis there has been described in which strange interests, beliefs and social impairment occur, which could be confused with the deficits of the autism spectrum disorder.[21] Hallucinations and delusions are typical for schizophrenia, but not features of autism spectrum disorder.[21]

Pathogenesis (Cause)

There is no known single cause or causes of schizophrenia, however, it is a heritable disorder.

Several environmental factors, including perinatal complications and prenatal maternal infections could cause schizophrenia.[8] These factors in a greater severity or frequency could result in an earlier onset of schizophrenia.[8] Maybe a genetic predisposition is an important factor too, familial illness reported for childhood-onset schizophrenic patients.[22]


There is "considerable overlap" in the genetics of childhood-onset and adult-onset schizophrenia, but in childhood-onset schizophrenia there is a higher number of "rare allelic variants".[23] An important gene for adolescent-onset schizophrenia is the catechol-O-methyltransferase gene, a gene that regulates dopamine.[24] Children with schizophrenia have an increase in genetic deletions or duplication mutations[medical citation needed] and some have a specific mutation called 22q11 deletion syndrome, which accounts for up to 2% of cases.[25][26]


Neuroimaging studies have found differences between the medicated brains of individuals with schizophrenia and neurotypical brains, though research does not know the cause of the difference.[27] In childhood-onset schizophrenia, there appears to be a faster loss of cerebral grey matter during adolescence.[27][28]


Schizophrenia disorders in children are rare.[6] Boys are twice as likely to be diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia.[29] There is often an disproportionately large number of males with childhood schizophrenia, because the age of onset of the disorder is earlier in males than females by about 5 years.[3] People have been and still are reluctant to diagnose schizophrenia early on, primarily due to the stigma attached to it.[30]

While very early-onset schizophrenia is a rare event, with prevalence of about 1:10,000, early-onset schizophrenia is manifests more often with an estimated prevalence of 0.5%.[31]


Research efforts are focusing on prevention in identifying early signs from relatives with associated disorders similar with schizophrenia and those with prenatal and birth complications. Prevention has been an ongoing challenge because early signs of the disorder are similar to those of other disorders. Also, some of the schizophrenic related symptoms are often found in children without schizophrenia or any other diagnosable disorder.[30]


Current methods in treating early-onset schizophrenia follow a similar approach to the treatment of adult schizophrenia. Although modes of treatment in this population is largely understudied, the use of antipsychotic medication is commonly the first line of treatment in addressing symptoms. Recent literature has failed to determine if typical or atypical antipsychotics are most effective in reducing symptoms and improving outcomes.[32] When weighing treatment options, it is necessary to consider the adverse effects of various medications used to treat schizophrenia and the potential implications of these effects on development.[33] A 2013 systematic review compared the efficacy of atypical antipsychotics versus typical antipsychotics for adolescents:

Atypical compared with typical antipsychotics (only short term)[34]
There is not any convincing evidence suggesting that atypical antipsychotic medications are superior to the older typical medications for the treatment of adolescents with psychosis. However, atypical antipsychotic medications may be more acceptable because fewer symptomatic adverse effects are seen in the short term. Little evidence is available to support the superiority of one atypical antipsychotic medication over another.[34]

Madaan et al. wrote that studies report efficacy of typical neuroleptics such as thioridazine, thiothixene, loxapine and haloperidol, high incidence of side effects such as extrapyramidal symptoms, akathisia, dystonias, sedation, elevated prolactin, tardive dyskinesia.[31]


An very-early diagnosis of schizophrenia leads to a worse prognosis than other psychotic disorders.[35] The primary area that children with schizophrenia must adapt to is their social surroundings. It has been found, however, that very early-onset schizophrenia carried a more severe prognosis than later-onset schizophrenia. Regardless of treatment, children diagnosed with schizophrenia at an early age suffer diminished social skills, such as educational and vocational abilities.[medical citation needed]

The grey matter in the cerebral cortex of the brain shrinks over time in people with schizophrenia; the question of whether antipsychotic medication exacerbates or causes this has been controversial. A 2015 meta-analysis found that there is a positive correlation between the cumulative amount of first generation antipsychotics taken by people with schizophrenia and the amount of grey matter loss, and a negative correlation with the cumulative amount of second-generation antipsychotics taken.[36][37]

Classification of mental disorders

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

DSM-III. American Psychiatric Association against childhood schizophrenia.

Childhood schizophrenia was not directly added to the DSM until 1968, when it was added to the DSM-II,[4] which set forth diagnostic criteria similar to that of adult schizophrenia.[14] "Schizophrenia, childhood type" was a DSM-II diagnosis with diagnostic code 295.8.[4] It's equivalent to "schizophrenic reaction, childhood type" (code 000-x28) in DSM-I (1952).[4] "Schizophrenia, childhood type" was successfully removed from the DSM-III (1980), and in the Appendix C they wrote: "there is currently no way of predicting which children will develop Schizophrenia as adults". Instead of childhood schizophrenia they proposed to use of "infantile autism" (299.0x) and "childhood onset pervasive developmental disorder" (299.9x).[38]

In the DSM-III-R (1987), DSM-IV (1994), DSM-IV-TR (2000), DSM-5 (2013) there are no "childhood schizophrenia". The rationale for this approach was that since the clinical picture of adult schizophrenia and childhood schizophrenia is identical, childhood schizophrenia should not be a separate disorder.[39]

In schizophrenia's section "development and course" in the DSM-5 they wrote:[1]

The psychotic features of schizophrenia typically emerge between the late teens and the mid-30s; onset prior to adolescence is rare. The peak age at onset for the first psychotic episode is in the early- to mid-20s for males and in the late-20s for females.

— American Psychiatric Association, DSM-5. Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders: Schizophrenia. 295.90 (F20.9)

The diagnosis of schizophrenia was[when?] often given to children who by today’s standards would be diagnosed as having of autism or pervasive developmental disorder. This may be because the onset of schizophrenia is gradual, with symptoms relating developmental difficulties or abnormalities appearing before psychotic symptoms.

International Classification of Diseases

In the International Classification of Diseases 8th revision (ICD-8, 1967) there was a category (295.8) "Other" in the schizophrenia section (295). "Other" includes: atypical forms of schizophrenia, infantile autism, schizophrenia, childhood type, NOS (Not Otherwise Specified), schizophrenia of specified type not classifiable under 295.0–295.7, schizophreniform attack or psychosis.

Unspecified psychoses with origin specific to childhood (code 299.9) in the International Classification of Diseases 9th revision (ICD-9) includes "child psychosis NOS", "schizophrenia, childhood type NOS" and "schizophrenic syndrome of childhood NOS".[40]

"Childhood type schizophrenia" available in the Soviet adapted version of the ICD-9 (code 299.91) and the Russian adapted version of the 10th revision ICD-10 (code F20.8xx3).[41] This diagnosis is widely used by Russian psychiatrists.


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Further reading

  • Tiffin PA, Welsh P (2013). "Practitioner review: schizophrenia spectrum disorders and the at-risk mental state for psychosis in children and adolescents—evidence-based management approaches". J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 54 (11): 1155–75. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12136. PMID 24102356.