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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Schizophenia Linked to Genetic Mutations

The Washington Post and other news outlets reported last week on a new study in the journal Science which examines a potential link between certain gene mutations and schizophrenia.  The Washington Post's Rick Weiss states,

Patients with schizophrenia are three to four times as likely as healthy people to harbor large mutations in genes that control brain development, and many of those glitches are unique to each patient, researchers reported yesterday.  The findings are forcing scientists to rethink the reigning model of how genes and environment conspire to cause the debilitating disease, which affects about 1 percent of the population worldwide.  In part, scientists said, the new view is daunting because it suggests that many people with schizophrenia have their own particular genetic underpinnings.

At the same time, the study shows that new screening techniques can find and differentiate among those various mutations. In the long run that could help doctors choose the best medications for individual schizophrenics and speed the development of drugs tailored to certain patients' needs.  "If the genetics tells us that schizophrenia is really 10 different disorders, then let's have 10 treatments that optimize the outcomes for everyone and not just use the same drugs for everybody," said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which helped fund and conduct the study. The work also offers evidence that autism shares some genetic roots with schizophrenia.

"Take away schizophrenia's hallucinations and delusions," said Jon McClellan, a child psychiatrist at the University of Washington and a leader of the study, published in yesterday's online issue of the journal Science, "and the symptoms that remain, the lack of social interest and withdrawal, are what we call autism. There is clearly an intersection of the brain systems involved."

. . . . The genes implicated are diverse, but many are known to play crucial roles in how the brain gets wired early in life. Normally that process starts with a huge overproduction of neurons, followed by a controlled winnowing that leaves only those that have made proper connections.

"Changes in these genes could bias the way circuits get sculpted out and could perhaps lead to a brain in which signals that would normally get filtered out don't get filtered out," which could interfere with thinking and prompt hallucinations, Insel said.

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