The largest study conducted of people with schizophrenia has found 83 new gene locations, with some in surprising places. These findings will allow researchers to pursue new theories about what causes schizophrenia and how to treat it. For this study, the researchers looked at the genetic codes of 36,989 people with schizophrenia and 113.075 people who did not have the brain disorder. “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.”
Genetics have long been recognized as a cause of schizophrenia. If you have a parent with schizophrenia, your risk for the disease increases to 10 percent. Even if you have an identical twin with schizophrenia, your risk is still only 50 percent. This new study may start to help 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, a psychiatry professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, 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. He adds that the study also confirms that people with schizophrenia lose neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s capacity to learn and remember.
While this study did confirm 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. Is it possible that schizophrenia can be triggered by an infection? Experts say it is possible. Rogaev explains that there has been previous theories linking the immune system and schizophrenia. Finding schizophrenia genes in areas that regulate the immune system give 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 expect we will see researchers looking closely at all these new genetic areas,” Malhotra says. “We will find out what these genes do and what happens when we knock them out.”