Researchers from UQ's Queensland Brain Institute are set to conduct a world-first trial into the link between prenatal vitamin D levels and schizophrenia prevalence.
Funded by the NHMRC and led by QBI's Dr Darryl Eyles, a team of four researchers will study blood spots taken from newborn babies who have gone on to develop schizophrenia in early adulthood.
"Undeniably, low maternal vitamin D affects the way the brain develops," Dr Eyles said.
"Over the past four years we've been able to show that low vitamin D intake in animals during pregnancy results in offspring with brain abnormalities similar to those seen in patients with schizophrenia."
The next step of the research process involves testing the hypothesis on human samples.
By analysing the blood spots of newborns the team will have a good indication of the baby's vitamin D status at the time of birth.
This type of study is possible thanks to a biobank located at the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen where the Danish authorities have not only stored newborn blood spots since 1981, but kept ongoing medical records which accompany each sample.
"This is a true test of the hypothesis," Dr Eyles said.
"The Danes are only able to give us 1.6 microlitres of plasma so we've had to come up with a method of determining the vitamin D levels in that tiny amount of blood.
"In collaboration with Alun Jones at the Institute of Molecular Bioscience, we've developed a way to easily measure low levels of vitamin D using mass spectrometry."
It is expected that the team will begin analyzing 2000 Danish blood spots (1000 cases and 1000 matched controls) in September.
"If we establish the link in this huge patient cohort, we will be able to show that having low maternal vitamin D does not necessarily mean a child is going to develop schizophrenia but, if a child has a particularly vulnerable genome, the low maternal vitamin D may be the environmental trigger," Dr Eyles said.
"It's the combination of gene and environment which triggers the disease."
Schizophrenia affects approximately one percent of the world's population and is characterised by disruptions in language, thought, perception, social activity, and volition.
UQ has conducted research in this area since 2001 when Professor John McGrath, also of the QBI, suggested a lack of sunlight exposure on pregnant women could account for the higher incidence of schizophrenia during winter months and in colder climates.