Scientists have known for some time that schizophrenia has a genetic component. People who have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with the disease are 10 times more likely to develop it than those who do not. If one of a pair of identical twins develops the psychiatric condition, the other twin has about a 50 percent chance of developing it too.
But researchers have also long suspected a connection between schizophrenia and the immune system. The risk of developing schizophrenia increases by 45 percent among relatives of a person with an autoimmune disorder, and people suffering schizophrenia often show blood signs of physical inflammation. In the largest study of its kind, researchers recently confirmed the genetic link between schizophrenia and the immune system, when they pinpointed 108 genes responsible for the schizophrenia. Previous genomic studies of the causes of schizophrenia had been able to identify only about 30 implicated genes.
Researchers Find Surprises in Search for Schizophrenia Roots
Schizophrenia is a crippling psychiatric condition,symptoms of which can include delusions, paranoia, cognitive decline and hallucinations. The results of the study, which was published in the journal Nature, confirmed a lot of what researchers already believed about schizophrenia. Some of the genes implicated in schizophrenia were also associated with dopamine regulation, for example, and with neural function. However, many of the 108 schizophrenia genes researchers were able to find were associated with immunity and heavy tobacco use, to researchers’ surprise.
Tobacco use or inflammation may not be causal factors for the development of schizophrenia, according to Steven Hyman, who is director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a lead author for the study. These genes may not affect the brain in the same way they affect the immune system. Nor are researchers yet sure how the genes associated with smoking contribute to the development of schizophrenia; more research is needed to understand the exact nature of the link between these genes and schizophrenia.
The researchers examined genetic patterns across a sample pool of 150,000 participants, 37,000 of whom suffer from schizophrenia. Though only about one percent of people have schizophrenia, scientists needed to include a relatively large number of people with the disorder in their sample pool, in order to get a better understanding of which genes may influence the development of the disease. Each of the 108 genes identified contributes only slightly to the development of the full-blown psychiatric illness.
Philanthropist Funds Further Research
Thanks to a generous gift of $650 million from philanthropist Ted Stanley, researchers will be able to continue their work on the genetic analysis of schizophrenia and other mental disorders, including bipolar disorder. Stanley had donated about $825 million to the center to date. His son, Jonathon, received treatment for psychosis and bipolar disorder in college and now lives a normal life. Since his son’s diagnosis, the Stanley has taken a keen interest in furthering mental illness research.
Stanley’s most recent donation is one of the largest ever made in the field of biomedical research. Researchers hope that their new insight into the genetic roots of schizophrenia, combined with the funding, will enable them to develop new drugs and treatments for the disorder.
Schizophrenia is currently treated with medications like risperidone. These drugs treat only the symptoms of the disease. Researchers and drug manufacturers alike hope that they will be able to come up with new medications and treatments that target the genetic causes of schizophrenia. Further investigation may also turn up lifestyle changes that could help slow the progression of the disease, or help relieve symptoms.
While new schizophrenia drugs have been developed over the years, medical treatments have all operated on the same basic mechanism since the first drugs for the treatment of the disorder were developed in the 1950s. Now that genomic analysis is possible and the genes behind schizophrenia have been pinpointed, scientists have a much better chance of unraveling the mysterious causes of this psychiatric disorder. New, more effective drugs could soon be under development.
“The wealth of new findings have the potential to kick-start the development of new treatments in schizophrenia, a process which has stalled for the last 60 years,” study author Michael O’Donovan told CNN.
This groundbreaking new study published in the journal Nature has identified 108 genes associated with the development of schizophrenia. Thanks to a large donation from philanthropist Ted Stanley, the researchers who performed this study will be able to continue their work, and hopefully develop new, more effective drugs for the treatment and prevention of schizophrenia. The researchers also expect to perform similar genomic studies to uncover the genetic roots of other mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder, and develop treatments for those, too. Many hope that studies such as this one could signal a new era in the effective treatment of some of our most debilitating psychiatric illnesses.