Scientists Take Major Step Toward Understanding Schizophrenia

A landmark new study sheds some light on how certain genes may influence the development of schizophrenia, a complex psychiatric condition that scientists have long struggled to make sense of and to treat.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, point toward possible causes underlying the psychiatric disorder that affects roughly 3.5 million Americans, or about 1 percent of the general population. Schizophrenia is characterized by symptoms including delusions, hallucinations, cognitive difficulties and abnormal social behavior.

Psychiatrists know little, however, about its origins and biological underpinnings.

“The fundamental scientific predicament in schizophrenia and in all mental illness is that we haven’t known even the most basic things about how these diseases start,” Dr. Steve McCarroll, a geneticist at Harvard University and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post. “Any steps toward understanding the root causes of the disease is potentially really helpful.”

For the new study, researchers from across the U.S. collaborated to investigate how genetics influence an individual’s chance of developing the disease, isolating one particular gene that seems to drive that risk.

They found that people who carry a gene that speeds up or strengthens the normal developmental process of “synaptic pruning” in the brain are at a higher risk for developing schizophrenia. Typically, the brain uses this process to shed weak or unneeded neural connections as it matures. This happens primarily during adolescence and young adulthood, and is concentrated in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with high-level thinking, planning and decision-making.

But in people with schizophrenia, the synaptic pruning process goes into overdrive. This may explain why those individuals have been shown to have fewer neural connections in their prefrontal cortex, and why the disorder almost always shows up during adolescence or young adulthood.

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