Scientists have found a set of 83 genes that have never been identified before that appear to link with developing the psychological condition schizophrenia. Why is this important, and what can researchers do with this information?
The study, which involved an international group of researchers led by a team at Cardiff University in the UK and is published this month in the journal Nature, is the largest of its kind to date and saw scientists from 35 countries analyze the genetic information of 37,000 people with schizophrenia, comparing what they found with 110,000 people without the disease.
By doing this the researchers, known as the Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, were able to identify 108 genes that sufferers of schizophrenia tend to have in common and, as mentioned above, 83 of those were previously unidentified.
Some of the things the researchers found weren’t unexpected. For instance, you would expect to find many of those genes played a large role in brain function. For instance, they found that schizophrenia appears to link with a mutation of the genes that control dopamine, which acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Again, not too surprisingly they also found that the genes of another neurotransmitter, glutamate, were affected.
However, there were some more interesting results that had only previously been guessed at. For instance, the level of change among genes that deal with a schizophrenia sufferer’s immune system was a surprise, though it does confirm a theory that susceptibility to certain illnesses can, after the fact of infection, increase the risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.
Schizophrenia is characterized by a range of different psychological symptoms but often includes hallucinations, delusions, compromised cognitive abilities, and marked changes in behavior. The illness is often also labeled psychotic which, despite its watered down meaning in general use, specifically means that people with schizophrenia are often unable to distinguish their own thoughts and hallucinations from objective reality.
It is estimated that one in 100 people will experience schizophrenia in their lifetime, with more than 24 million people affected worldwide. It usually affects people between the ages of 15 and 35 but doesn’t seem to affect one sex over the other.
When properly treated, most schizophrenia sufferers can lead perfectly normal lives, but unfortunately medical science has made very little breakthrough when it comes to new treatments for schizophrenia. While many people respond well to the various drugs and therapies that can be prescribed to manage this condition, a significant proportion find that the anti-psychotic medication does not work for them, and as a result managing the condition can be much more difficult.
For those people in particular, this research is very important but it’s crucial to say what this research does and doesn’t do. While it is a breakthrough of sorts, it doesn’t mean that a cure or a new treatment method is in sight. That said, by understanding the genetic risk-factors that come into play for schizophrenics, and what role environmental factors might play, it gives researchers avenues to explore for working out where to target new medications, and in the future may reveal how early intervention can stop schizophrenia developing. In essence, this research teaches us the level of complexity that is involved with schizophrenia, and how much we don’t yet know about the condition. Far from that being a negative, it shines a light where previously there was only guess work, and that’s an important step.
Professor Sir Mike Owen, Director of Cardiff University’s MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, says that this research is crucial for future scientific understanding.
“The wealth of new findings provides a huge number of launch pads for understanding the disease and will kick-start the stalled process of developing new treatments for patients and their families who are even now still [stigmatized] and blamed for the condition,” he is quoted as saying. “The key challenge now is to translate these new insights into the biological basis of schizophrenia, into new diagnostic tools and novel treatments for patients and finally put an end to the 60-year-wait for new treatments for sufferers worldwide.”
These results have already had an impact: on the same day the results were published, psychiatric researchers in the United States received a $650 million donation to further programs like the schizophrenia research initiative as we seek to understand the underpinnings of psychological illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and even autism, and get closer to a day when these conditions no longer impact the lives of so many people around the world.
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