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Genetic Risk for Low Vitamin D Linked to Lower Social Motivation in First-Episode Psychosis (2024 Study)

Recent research reveals a notable association between vitamin D levels and the severity of negative symptoms in individuals with first-episode psychosis (FEP).

A new study explored the genetic predisposition towards lower vitamin D levels and its impact on symptom severity in schizophrenia and related disorders.


  • Vitamin D & Psychosis Connection: Lower levels of vitamin D are often observed in individuals with schizophrenia and first-episode psychosis, suggesting a potential link to symptom severity.
  • Genetic Predisposition: A study examined the polygenic risk score for vitamin D concentration and its correlation with the severity of psychotic symptoms.
  • Impact on Negative Symptoms: A significant association was found between genetic predisposition to lower vitamin D levels and increased severity of negative symptoms, particularly social motivation and asociality.
  • Potential for Personalized Treatment: Understanding the genetic basis of vitamin D deficiency in psychosis could lead to personalized interventions, emphasizing outdoor activities and social engagement.

Source: Translational Psychiatry (2024)

Vitamin D & Psychosis Link

Vitamin D, traditionally recognized for its essential role in maintaining bone health, has increasingly become a focal point in neuropsychiatric research.

This fat-soluble vitamin, synthesized in the skin upon exposure to sunlight and also obtained from certain dietary sources, is pivotal not only in calcium metabolism but also in various brain processes.

Its receptors are widely distributed in brain tissue, indicating its potential influence on brain development and functioning.

Vitamin D Deficiency in Psychosis

The observation that individuals with schizophrenia and first-episode psychosis often exhibit lower levels of vitamin D poses intriguing questions about the nature of this association.

Does this deficiency stem from inherent biological predispositions, or is it a consequence of lifestyle alterations that accompany the onset of psychotic disorders?

Lifestyle changes in individuals with psychosis often include reduced outdoor activity, leading to less sun exposure, which is a primary source of vitamin D.

Furthermore, dietary habits may also shift, contributing to this deficiency.

Unraveling whether these lower vitamin D levels are a cause or an effect of psychotic disorders is crucial for developing effective interventions.

Vitamin D, Genetics, Psychosis Links (2024 Study)

Hatzimanolis et al. investigated the relationship between genetic predispositions to vitamin D levels and the severity of psychotic symptoms, particularly in first-episode psychosis (FEP).

Researchers aimed to determine whether lower levels of vitamin D observed in individuals with schizophrenia and FEP are due to a biological predisposition or changes in lifestyle following the onset of the illness.

Additionally, the study sought to understand if this genetic predisposition to lower vitamin D levels influences the neurodevelopmental trajectory associated with psychotic disorders.


The research utilized data from two key studies: the Athens First-Episode Psychosis Research Study (AthensFEP) and the Psychosis Incident Cohort Outcome Study (PICOS).

Participants in these studies were individuals experiencing their first episode of psychosis.

The study involved assessing the severity of their psychopathology using the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale (PANSS) at baseline and follow-up stages.

Researchers computed a polygenic risk score for circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (PRS-vitD) based on the largest genome-wide association study available on vitamin D concentration.

This approach allowed for a comprehensive analysis of how multiple genetic factors contributing to vitamin D levels might influence psychotic disorders.


The study found an inverse association between PRS-vitD and the severity of negative symptoms, particularly lack of social motivation, in the AthensFEP study at both baseline and follow-up stages.

This observation was independently validated in the PICOS study at the follow-up stage.

However, no significant relationship was found between PRS-vitD and premorbid measures of intelligence and adjustment.

This suggests that while polygenic vulnerability to reduced vitamin D impairs motivation and social interaction in individuals with FEP, it might not impact developmental trajectories related to psychotic illness.


One of the primary limitations of the study was its relatively small sample size, which may affect the generalizability of the findings.

Additionally, the study did not directly measure vitamin D levels in participants, relying instead on genetic indicators of vitamin D concentration.

This approach might not fully capture the complexity of how vitamin D levels directly impact psychotic symptoms.

Future research with larger sample sizes and direct measurements of vitamin D levels would be necessary to confirm and expand upon these findings.

Details of the Results: Polygenic Risk for Low Vitamin D vs. Negative Symptoms of Psychosis

The study found a nuanced relationship between the polygenic risk score for vitamin D (PRS-vitD) and the severity of negative symptoms in psychosis, especially concerning social motivation aspects.

This association was consistent in both the AthensFEP and PICOS studies, highlighting its potential reliability.

In the AthensFEP study, an inverse relationship was observed at baseline and follow-up stages, with lower PRS-vitD correlating with increased severity of negative symptoms.

This finding was independently corroborated in the PICOS study at the follow-up stage.

No Association with Premorbid Intelligence

Interestingly, the study did not find a significant relationship between PRS-vitD and premorbid intelligence or adjustment measures.

This suggests that while genetic predisposition to lower vitamin D levels may exacerbate certain negative symptoms in psychosis, it might not directly influence the neurodevelopmental aspects associated with the disorder.

Negative Symptom Sub-Domains

Further examination of negative symptoms revealed a more pronounced impact on social motivation, compared to expressive deficits.

This distinction is crucial, as it indicates that the genetic predisposition to lower vitamin D levels might specifically aggravate symptoms related to social withdrawal and lack of motivation, rather than broader cognitive or expressive aspects of psychosis.

What are the potential implications of these findings?

Personalized Treatments: Understanding the genetic links between vitamin D levels and negative symptoms could lead to more personalized treatments in psychotic disorders. Interventions that specifically target vitamin D levels, either through dietary changes, supplements, or lifestyle modifications like increased sun exposure, could potentially alleviate some of the negative symptoms in individuals genetically predisposed to lower vitamin D levels.

Focus on Social Motivation: Given the specific impact on social motivation, therapeutic strategies might also include psychosocial interventions aimed at enhancing social skills and motivation. These could range from structured social skills training to community-based activities that encourage social interaction and engagement.

Broader Public Health: On a broader scale, these findings might influence public health strategies for populations at risk of psychosis. Preventive measures could include ensuring adequate vitamin D levels in at-risk groups, particularly in regions with limited sun exposure.

Correlation vs. Causation in the Vitamin D-Psychosis Link

Genetic Confounding

While the study reveals a correlation between PRS-vitD and negative symptoms in psychosis, this does not necessarily imply a causal relationship.

It is possible that the genes contributing to lower vitamin D levels might also independently influence the development of negative symptoms, regardless of actual vitamin D levels.

This genetic confounding means that even if vitamin D levels were normalized, the predisposition to severe negative symptoms might persist due to other genetic factors.

Environmental & Lifestyle Factors

The study does not account for environmental and lifestyle factors that can influence vitamin D levels, such as diet, sun exposure, and physical activity.

These factors might also be related to the development and severity of psychotic symptoms, independently of genetic predisposition.

Need for Longitudinal & Interventional Studies

To establish a causal link, longitudinal studies that track vitamin D levels, genetic data, and symptom progression over time are needed.

Interventional studies, where individuals with low PRS-vitD receive vitamin D supplementation, would also be crucial in determining whether increasing vitamin D levels can actually mitigate the severity of negative symptoms in psychosis.

The Complexity of Psychotic Disorders

It’s important to acknowledge the complexity of psychotic disorders, where multiple genetic and environmental factors interact.

The relationship between vitamin D levels and psychosis is likely to be a small part of a much larger, intricate network of influences contributing to these conditions.

Optimizing Vitamin D Levels to Potentially Decrease Symptom Severity in Psychiatric Disorders

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including bone health, immune system regulation, and brain development.

Sources of Vitamin D

Sunlight Exposure: The most natural way to increase vitamin D levels is through sun exposure. Skin synthesizes vitamin D when exposed to UVB rays from sunlight. However, the amount of sun exposure needed can vary based on skin type, location, season, and time of day.

Dietary Sources: Incorporating vitamin D-rich foods into the diet is another effective strategy. Foods high in vitamin D include fatty fish (like salmon and mackerel), egg yolks, fortified foods (such as milk, cereal, and orange juice), and beef liver.

Supplementation: Vitamin D supplements can be beneficial, especially for individuals living in areas with limited sunlight or those with dietary restrictions. It’s important to consult with a healthcare provider to determine the appropriate dosage and type of supplement.

Factors Affecting Vitamin D Absorption

  • Skin Pigmentation: Individuals with darker skin have more melanin, which can reduce the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight.
  • Age: As people age, their skin’s ability to synthesize vitamin D decreases.
  • Geographical Location and Sunlight: Those living in higher latitudes or areas with high pollution levels may receive less UVB exposure.
  • Lifestyle and Clothing: Indoor lifestyles and clothing that covers most of the skin can limit sun exposure.

Monitoring & Maintaining Optimal Levels

  • Regular Testing: Regular blood tests can help monitor vitamin D levels. This is especially important for individuals with psychiatric disorders, as they may have different optimal levels compared to the general population.
  • Personalized Approach: The optimal level of vitamin D can vary. A healthcare provider can provide guidance based on individual health needs, lifestyle, and existing medical conditions.

Safety & Considerations

  • Avoid Over-Supplementation: Excessive vitamin D intake can lead to toxicity, with symptoms like nausea, weakness, and kidney problems. It’s crucial to stick to the recommended dosage.
  • Interaction with Medications: Vitamin D supplements can interact with certain medications, including steroids and weight loss drugs. Consultation with a healthcare provider is essential.

Potential Impacts on Psychiatric Disorders

  • Symptom Management: Optimizing vitamin D levels could potentially aid in managing certain symptoms of psychiatric disorders, particularly those related to mood and cognitive function.
  • Holistic Treatment Approach: Vitamin D optimization should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, and nutritional support.

Takeaway: Vitamin D Levels in Psychiatric Disorders

Research linking vitamin D levels to the severity of symptoms in psychiatric disorders underscores the potential of vitamin D optimization as a complementary approach in managing these conditions.

While sunlight exposure, dietary adjustments, and supplementation are viable strategies to enhance vitamin D levels, individual factors such as skin pigmentation, geographical location, and lifestyle must be considered for personalized interventions.

Regular monitoring and consultation with healthcare professionals are essential to ensure safe and effective vitamin D management.

Optimizing vitamin D levels could offer a novel avenue to alleviate some symptoms of psychiatric disorders, particularly those impacting mood and cognition.

However, it should be integrated into a broader, holistic treatment plan that encompasses medication, therapy, and lifestyle modifications.

Ultimately, this approach emphasizes the importance of a multifaceted strategy in addressing the complex nature of psychiatric disorders.


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