A groundbreaking study paves the way for a deeper understanding of the underlying cause of schizophrenia, which could lead to a wide range of new potential treatments.
Schizophrenia has puzzled scientists for more than a century, and researchers are only just now beginning to understand what causes the condition. According to a report from the New York Times, a recent discovery reveals that there is a specific genetic flaw linked to the disease. A recent study from scientists working with the National Institutes of Health paves the way for a deeper understanding of the disease that has baffled medicine for generations.
The paper was published in the journal Nature, and while it does not lay out methods for testing for or treating the disease, it describes the first known biomarker for schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is characterized by bouts of hallucinations and delusions, and often leads to erratic and potentially dangerous behavior. Current treatments for the disorder can help curb symptoms, but there is no medication that addresses the underlying cause available today.
The paper describes how various genes can increase a person’s risk of being diagnosed with schizophrenia. The risk is linked to a process in the brain called synaptic pruning, where weak or redundant neuron connections are destroyed as the brain matures. This process ramps up during adolescence and young adulthood, affecting the centers of the brain that govern thinking and planning, particularly the prefrontal cortex.
The study found that genes linked to accelerated or intensified synaptic pruning were indicators that a person was at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia than a person without these genes.
Previous research has suggested that synaptic pruning may have had something to do with the onset of schizophrenia, and scientists have demonstrated that schizophrenics had significantly fewer neural connections than people without the disorder. The new study expands on how synaptic pruning can go wrong, and identifies a genetic variant that leads to mistaken “tags” on neural connections that shouldn’t have been pruned at all.
While the study points out a key gene in the progression of schizophrenia, there will still need to be much more work done in order to determine the best practices for testing and treating the disorder.
A press release from the National Institutes of Health describing the details of the recent discovery can be found here.