A gene that is associated with schizophrenia is also associated with brain development, which could help researchers explain the way the disease originates. The overproduction of the NOS1AP gene causes abnormalities in brain structure and faulty connections between nerve cells that prevent them from communicating correctly, says Bonnie Firestein, Ph.D., a Rutgers professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience.
Using rats, Firestein and colleagues found the surplus of a protein in the NOS1AP gene resulted in stunted development of the dendrites, tree-like structures that allow cells to talk to each other and are essential to nervous system function. The protein prevents them from branching out and left them deep in the neocortex region of the brain, which is responsible for higher functioning skills. However, in the rats that the NOS1AP chemical protein was not over-expressed, the cellular functions developed properly.
“When the brain develops, it sets up a system of the right type of connectivity to make sure that communication can occur,” said Firestein. “What we saw here was that the nerve cells didn’t move to the correct locations and didn’t have dendrites that branch out to make the connections that were needed.”
“The next step would be to let the disease develop in the laboratory and try to treat the over expression of the protein with an anti-psychotic therapy to see if it works,” says Firestein.