Scientists discover 10 genes that ‘dramatically increase’ schizophrenia risks – and could open the door to better treatments
- Some 3.2 million Americans suffer schizophrenia
- The mental illness is poorly understood but thought to have genetic and environmental causes
- Harvard and Massachusetts General researchers identified 10 genes linked to higher schizophrenia risks in DNA analysis of 125,00 people
- Two of those genes code for a protein that lets brain cells ‘talk’ to one another effectively
- Scientist believe they will find many more genes, and that these two may be effective new treatment targets
Scientists have discovered 10 genes that play a key role in the development of schizophrenia, a new study reveals.
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that risks were raised when these bits of DNA – which code for proteins that help brain cells communicate effectively – were disrupted.
Schizophrenia is a complex and variable psychiatric condition, and scientists hope that identifying both the genetic and environmental risk factors involved will help them design better treatments.
And the scientists say their discovery may be just the tip of the iceberg as they suspect their genome analysis will uncover more DNA that plays into schizophrenia.
Harvard scientists analyzed the DNA of 125,000 people and identified 10 genes – including two key to how brain cells communicate – that they say dramatically raise schizophrenia risks
For those researchers and those who don’t suffer the condition, schizophrenia is a subject of fascination.
But for the those with the poorly understood mental illness, schizophrenia can be debilitating, and though treatment with antipsychotic drugs can be quite effective, years of using them has also been linked to atrophy.
So the development of new drugs to treat schizophrenia could bring major life improvements for the 3.2 million Americans living with the condition in the US.
But, ‘drug development for schizophrenia has had limited progress in the last 50 years, but in the last decade, we have started to make genetic discoveries that help us better understand the mechanisms underlying the disorder,’ notes Tarjinder Singh, a Harvard postdoc who studies psychiatry.
‘The main aim of our research is to understand the genetic causes of schizophrenia and motivate the development of new therapeutics.’
To that end, he and his team did one of the largest genetic analyses for schizophrenia ever conducted.
They poured over the DNA data of over 125,000 people, about 25,000 of which they knew to have schizophrenia.
And they found a pattern in the genomes of the 25,000 suffering symptoms of schizophrenia such as delusions, hallucinations and confused thought and speech.
‘For the first time, we were able to identify 10 genes that when disrupted, dramatically increase risk for schizophrenia.’
Crucially, two of those 10 genes contain instructions for the body’s production of a spcial protein.
These proteins, called glutamate receptors, are one of the most important components of the way that brain cells talk to one another.
So when those genes are tampered with, so is the brain’s own system of internal communication.
Many antipsychotic drugs currently work by changing levels of dopamine, another neurotransmitter involved in schizophrenia.
The interaction between gluatamate receptors and dopamine ones had been studied for its important to the prefrontal cortex’s function.
And the prefrontal cortex is the hub for executive functioning.
It’s a long way off, but this new understanding of how disruption to DNA designs for glutamate raises schizophrenia risks may give researchers a new target to aim for in developing therapies to treat the condition.
‘Furthermore, our analyses showed us that there are many more such genes; our search is just beginning,’ said Dr Singh.