The New Genetics of Schizophrenia

The New Genetics of Schizophrenia

By Chris Iliades, MD, Everyday Health; Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH

Photo by Lauri Rotko/Getty Images

The largest study ever conducted of people with schizophrenia has found 83 new gene locations, some in surprising places — findings that will allow researchers to pursue new theories about what causes the disease and how to treat it.

The work of hundreds of schizophrenia investigators from dozens of research centers around the world — the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium — came together in the study, published in the journal Nature. The researchers looked at the genetic codes of 36,989 people with schizophrenia and 113,075 people who did not have the brain disorder.

Related: How Writing About Schizophrenia Led to Hope and Recovery

“This is a big moment in schizophrenia research,” says Anil Malhotra, MD, director of psychiatric research at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, and a study contributor. “We have gone from just a handful of known genetic loci for schizophrenia to 108. This is a wealth of research and should lead to an onslaught of investigations into these gene locations.”

Evgeny I. Rogaev, PhD, a psychiatry professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, says it was the largest study of its kind in schizophrenia, and “therefore it must provide the strongest statistical data ever reported.”

Unraveling the Cause of Schizophrenia

Genetics have been long been recognized as a cause of schizophrenia, a disease that attacks about 1 percent of the population. If you have a parent with schizophrenia, your risk jumps to 10 percent. Even if you have an identical twin with the disease though, your risk is still only 50 percent. The new study, though, may start to explain why some people get the disease and others don’t.

“There are new genes which have not been linked to schizophrenia before,” Dr. Rogaev says. In general, he notes, however, the study strongly confirms previous theories that schizophrenia is caused by changes in the way the brain sends messages, a process called neurotransmission.

Related: Loneliness Can Really Hurt You

The study also confirms that people with schizophrenia lose neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s capacity to learn and remember, he adds. “Very likely, there are many different pathways involved,” he says.

Although the study confirmed a lot of the current theories about what goes wrong in the brain of someone with schizophrenia, it also found some surprising links to genes located in areas associated with the immune system, which helps the body fight off infections. Could schizophrenia be triggered by an infection?

It’s possible, experts say.

Related: What Is Schizophreniform Disorder?

Rogaev notes that there have been previous theories linking schizophrenia to the immune system. Finding schizophrenia genes in areas that regulate the immune system gives these theories new life. “So we may have both immune system pathways and neurotransmitter pathways associated with schizophrenia,” he says. “I think a new and exciting area of research will be to look for links between the immune system and the neurotransmitter system.”

Researchers will likely explore many new possibilities.

“I suspect we will find different subsets of schizophrenia which have different causes,” says Dr. Malhotra. “One cause may be changes in regulation of the immune system triggered by certain infections.”

Speak Your Mind