Schizophrenia: Cracking the Genetic Code [USC]

In a finding that could forever change how the disorder is treated, psychiatrists have identified over 100 sites on the human genome associated with a risk of developing schizophrenia.

Researchers from Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California have announced the results of a groundbreaking, multi-national effort to finally crack the genetic code behind the debilitating psychiatric disorder known as schizophrenia.

In an announcement that had mental health advocates, researchers, and patients rejoicing over the possibilities for innovation in treatment, researches confirmed over 100 locations in the human genome associated with a risk of developing the disorder. With advancements stalled for six decades, sufferers have relied on archaic treatments which fail to address the many associated symptoms of schizophrenia- instead only providing relief for psychosis. This innovation freeze was largely due to the complex biological mechanisms that fuel the disease, often viewed as one of the most difficult psychological disorders to treat.

Affecting 1 in 100 people, studies estimate the cost of schizophrenia at more than $60 billion annually in the United States alone. This is based on the devastating toll of the disorder, including difficulties maintaining employment and medical costs. Sufferers have long hoped their plight would be alleviated with improved treatments.

The Genes Behind Schizophrenia

Now, thanks to the largest genomic study ever conducted on any psychiatric disorder, researchers anticipate a revolution in our understanding of the illness. Previously, only 25 loci in the human genome were understood to be connected to schizophrenia. In just a few years, over 80,000 samples from participants around the world allowed psychiatrists to discover the vital role of genes that are active in pathways controlling synaptic plasticity and postsynaptic activity– both expressed in brain tissue. Researchers also found a smaller number of genes associated with schizophrenia that are active in the immune system, a discovery that supports a previously hypothesized link between schizophrenia and immunological processes.

Researchers have added over 80 locations on the human genome now confirmed to be associated with schizophrenia.

Researchers have added over 80 locations on the human genome now confirmed to be associated with schizophrenia. Previously, only 25 links had been identified.

“The fact that we were able to detect genetic risk factors on this massive scale shows that schizophrenia can be tackled by the same approaches that have already transformed our understanding of other diseases,” said the paper’s senior author Michael O’Donovan, deputy director of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine. “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.”

Moving Forward

With progress on the horizon, the multi-national team is invigorated to dive even deeper into our understanding of the illness. The Genomic Psychiatry Cohort studies have enrolled 33,000 participants with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or who are unaffected control participants, through 12 participating institutions nationally, with plans to add more than 17,000 additional participants over the next five years. If all goes well, we could be looking at one of the biggest breakthroughs ever seen in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

Scientists are eager to use these findings to guide further research and progress in understanding schizophrenia.

Scientists are eager to use these findings to guide further research and progress in understanding schizophrenia.

Related Links:

Nature|Biological insights from 108 schizophrenia-associated genetic loci
USC|New light shed on biology underlying schizophrenia
Forbes|Schizophrenia Gene Study May Point to New Treatment

The Michelson Medical Research Foundation is a proud supporter of The University of Southern California thanks to the generosity of Dr. Gary Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.