Scientists study affect of gluten on mental health

Scottish scientists believe that gluten-rich foods could help trigger schizophrenia in people with a genetic predisposition to the condition.

The researchers at the prospective University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) are looking at the links between schizophrenia and diabetes.

The two studies undertaken by geneticist Dr Jun Wei and his team in Inverness are to be funded by £300,000 from the Schizophrenia Association of Great Britain.

The first project is to explore the links between schizophrenia and diabetes, while the second project focuses on the role of gluten in schizophrenia and diabetes.

Gluten is the protein commonly found in rye, wheat and barley, and it is already recognised as a trigger for serious diseases related to the gut, most notably coeliac disease.

It is now emerging that gluten might also be associated with other auto-immune diseases including schizophrenia and type 1 diabetes.

Professor Ian Megson, head of the UHI Department of Diabetes and Cardiovascular Science, said in a statement: "The reason that gluten might provide a link between these apparently quite different diseases is that, in people with a particular genetic make-up that results in their bodies' inability to handle gluten in the normal way, the immune system becomes unusually active.

"In this way, cells in the blood that are designed to combat infections begin to target healthy tissue, which can lead to impaired function of affected organs (gut, brain or pancreas) and disease."

He added: "This research is at an early stage, but if the theory is correct and those at risk are identified very early in life, a simple change in diet might prevent these diseases developing in some individuals."

Dr Wei said: "An individual's inherited genes, together with factors from the environment in which they have lived, are now considered to be central to development of both schizophrenia and diabetes.

"Gluten is one such environmental factor. More than 30% of schizophrenia sufferers have high levels of antibodies against wheat gluten in their body so a gluten-free diet might help to reduce the symptoms of this mental condition.

"We are also investigating if gluten acts as a trigger for schizophrenia in people who have a genetic predisposition to it."