Genes, Stress May Have Led to Omar Bin Laden's Schizophrenia

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Voices. Hallucinations. Social dysfunctions so severe they can interfere with relationships and tear a family apart.

Such are the symptoms that reportedly sent Omar bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, 29, to the hospital for schizophrenia treatment, according to Omar's spokesman. Perhaps most notably, Omar's spokesman said that the son of perhaps the world's most hunted terrorist has been bedeviled by his father's voice in his head.

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The three mental health experts with whom ABC News spoke emphasized that they have no association with Omar bin Laden and could only refer to schizophrenia in general. But if Omar bin Laden indeed has schizophrenia, medical experts say it's no surprise the younger bin Laden reported hearing his father's voice.

"A diagnosis of schizophrenia almost always means someone has psychotic symptoms, and the most obvious of those are hallucinations, and the most common abnormal hallucinations are voices," said Dr. Bruce Cohen, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness characterized by hallucinations, delusions, disorganized speech and thinking and is often accompanied by occupational and social dysfunction. Doctors say it's a complex illness that results from an interaction between genetics and factors in the environment.

So does Omar bin Laden's condition suggest anything about his father's mental health? Without a mental evaluation, it's impossible to tell whether Osama bin Laden suffers from schizophrenia or some other mental illness. But doctors say schizophrenia tends to run in families.

Inherited or not, the illness can exact a heavy toll on those who have it -- as well as their loved ones.

"[Schizophrenia] is a symptom of severe depression, delirium, dementia, certain seizure disorders, brain tumors and other illnesses," said Dr. Michael Compton, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine.

Those who suffer from bipolar disorder also often report they hear voices. Omar Bin Laden's spokesman told ABC News that Bin Laden had bipolar disorder and was on antidepressants.

"People tend to hear voices during the very heights of mania or the depths of depression," said Dr. J. Steven Lamberti, professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Although it's hard to say for certain that Omar didn't suffer from both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, doctors told ABC News the two conditions don't typically occur together. Instead, people who exhibit the classic symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder suffer from a condition called schizoaffective disorder.

"In some ways, they are even more sick, because they have more symptoms," said Cohen.

"Schizoaffective disorder is a mix between the two. It's a separate diagnostic category," said Compton.

Childhood Trauma, Stress Can Exacerbate Condition

Because schizophrenia is such a complicated condition, it is often difficult to determine whether genetics or environment plays more of a hand in its development from case to case. But according to Omar bin Laden's past statements to the press, his upbringing was far from carefree.

Omar bin Laden told ABC News several months ago that he and his siblings were severely beaten by their father for smiling too wide, and that the elder bin Laden showed little emotion to his children.

Doctors stopped short of saying a history of abuse causes schizoprenia, but believe there is some link between the two.

"It's very important that we do not blame parents for schizophrenia. It is not the result of bad parenting," said Lamberti. "On the other hand, we know that a stressful environment can increase the risk for developing the disorder," he added.

"There's evidence that early life trauma, like abuse, may affect the symptoms of schizophrenia," said Compton.

It could also be the case that the stress of being the son of a wanted terrorist has taken its toll on Omar bin Laden. Mental health experts say being a close relative of someone as infamous as Osama bin Laden could cause his son to experience a number of stressors, including sadness, depression, guilt, anger and denial.

Omar bin Laden's wife, Zeina, told London's Daily Mail newspaper that the family was "psychologically broken," and she blamed her father-in-law for the stress her family is experiencing.

"Extreme stress can increase the risk of schizophrenia," said Cohen.

"It's clear that stress causes a relapse or a flareup of sickness," said Lamberti. "The psychotic symptoms tend to worsen during times of stress."

Mental Illnesses Can Take Heavy Toll on Families

Zeina bin Laden told the newspaper she asked Omar for a divorce because she could no longer cope with his mental illness.

"Both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be very traumatic for families," said Lamberti. "When somebody develops schizophrenia, they undergo sometimes dramatic changes. For a spouse, that can be very frightening and bewildering."

"It affects the way you think, so it's hard to have straightforward relationships. The person often does not have insight into the illness and don't think anything is wrong with them," said Cohen. "Since these illnesses affect the very heart of what it is to be a person -- thinking and feeling -- it's particularly sad to see relatives go through this.

"It seriously impacts a relationship."