Schizophrenia, the mental disorder that has always perplexed doctors and psychologists, seems to have been demystified.
Researchers at Duke University have tied together three seemingly distinct and probable causes of schizophrenia to a single gene.
The three biological changes have always been considered unrelated, though they all led to the mental disorder that goes beyond common hallucinations and delusional thinking. The findings should open completely new line of treatments for schizophrenia, suggest the researchers.
The study revolves around a gene variant called Arp2/3 and investigates how it contributes to psychosis, agitation and problems of short- and long-term memory. When the researchers tested their hypothesis on mice which were genetically modified to lack the Arp2/3 gene, these creatures displayed all the three symptoms. These mice even “jumped” abnormally when startled, a trait very commonly displayed by humans in the grips of psychosis.
Duke University neurobiologist Scott Soderling, who led the study, then investigated to check if brain abnormalities linked to such behaviors had anything in common. Unsurprisingly, mice that lacked the Arp2/3 gene variant, displayed all the brain abnormalities associated with schizophrenia, namely, psychosis, agitation and memory problems.
Schizophrenia has always been a tricky mental disorder, confusing scientists. Though the condition could be traced back to three neuronal changes, the changes seemed completely unrelated, sometimes even contradictory. However, the researchers at Duke University have discovered and proven that all the three changes are brought about by a malfunction in the same gene. Hence instead of treating the symptoms or phenotypes, doctors could soon address the underlying cause of schizophrenia, said Scott,
“The most exciting part was when all the pieces of the puzzle fell together. When [co-researcher Il Hwan Kim] and I finally realized that these three outwardly unrelated phenotypes… were actually functionally interrelated with each other, that was really surprising and also very exciting for us.”
Traditionally, the antipsychotic medication haloperidol, marketed as Haldol, has long worked to tame schizophrenia symptoms. However, it managed to work by reducing the amount of dopamine in the brain. Scott advises that too much dopamine is the result of a cascade of misfirings and not the root of the problem.
Scott cautions that they have merely scratched the surface of schizophrenia and are still quite far from completely unraveling the mystery of the mental disorder, however he adds they are on the right track with the Arp2/3 gene and its addition or deletion in future experiments should provide more answers.