Schizophrenia, Genetics, and Other Disorders
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01-29-14 Category: Mental Health

Schizophrenia affects the chemistry of the brain and a person’s cognitive abilities, causing problems that can become debilitating and affect a person’s ability to function. Schizophrenics may hallucinate or suffer from delusions, and they often hear voices, become paranoid, or believe others can hear their thoughts. However, schizophrenia can be treated and managed, allowing a person to live a healthy, normal life.

Schizophrenia affects about 1 in 100 people in America, and that risk increases for those with a family history of schizophrenia due to a genetic link to the disorder. Researchers are still searching to identify genes associated with the condition and the role they play moving a person from being at risk to developing the disorder. Recent studies have made headway in this area of research.

Link Between Genes and Decreased Cognitive Ability

Researchers from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, headquartered in Manhasset, NY, found evidence that certain genes associated with schizophrenia also negatively affect cognitive function, providing direct evidence that the genes for schizophrenia overlap with those that play a role in cognitive ability, including memory, language, and attention.

Previous studies have shown that there is some correlation between undiagnosed and non-medicated relatives of schizophrenics and subtle cognitive abnormalities, suggesting a genetic overlap between cognitive function and schizophrenia. However, this is the first study to look at this relationship at a molecular level.

The researchers conducted a molecular genetic test focusing on specific genetic markers to see if they were the same for reduced cognitive ability and schizophrenia. This test was a large-scale, meta-analysis, genome wide association study (GWAS) using samples from 5,000 subjects from the Cognitive Genomics consorTium (COGENT). The study confirmed that those with schizophrenia had decreased cognitive ability, which might provide some helpful insight for the future treatment and diagnosis of the disorder.

Genetic Variants and Cognitive Skills

Another recent study studied the connection between the genes for schizophrenia and cognitive function in carriers of the genes associated with schizophrenia and autism. Researchers as part of the NEWMEDS project, supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), looked at the 26 known gene variants associated with autism and schizophrenia, using the genomes of 100,000 Icelanders, of which 1.16 percent had one or more of the copy number variants (CNVs) known to be related to schizophrenia and autism.

The study was investigating biological underpinnings of the disorders, rather than focusing on the symptoms, as much of the current research does. The researchers found that the genes for schizophrenia and autism affect those who are carriers but have not developed one or both of the disorders.

The researchers compared people diagnosed with schizophrenia to healthy carriers of the different gene variants associated with it, as well as a control group free of the risk-associated variants, in order to see if carriers had any cognitive abnormalities. The healthy participants, both carriers and non-carriers, performed cognitive skill tests on areas known to be problematic in those with schizophrenia, such as logical memory, spatial working memory, attention, cognitive flexibly, and language.

Brain Scans

They also underwent brain scans. The researchers discovered that the cognitive abilities of those with the risk variants fell between those with schizophrenia and those with none of the risk variants. The study also revealed that healthier carriers of the risk variants shared brain abnormalities that are linked to schizophrenia and cognitive processes.

These findings suggest that having the cognitive abnormalities might be at risk for developing schizophrenia, rather than a result of the disorder. For example, one particular CNV, which is a deletion in a specific area of chromosome 15, was found in carriers who tended to have a history of dyslexia and problems with numbers.

They also had an altered brain structure similar to people in early stages of psychosis and others with dyslexia. The researchers want to continue this area of research to see if the abnormalities associated with these gene variants affect people in real world situations, as indicated by how well they do in school and their socioeconomic situation.

New Gene Variants Discovered

Another recent study has discovered a new gene variant associated with the development of schizophrenia. An international team led by researchers at Cardiff University recently discovered new genetic mutations that might contribute to the development of the disorder. This study, one of the largest genetic studies of schizophrenia, analyzed DNA blood samples from 623 participants with schizophrenia and their parents.

They found that “de novo” mutations, which are genetic changes present in those with schizophrenia but not in the parents (variations that are not inherited), play a role in whether a person develops schizophrenia. Additionally, the mutations disrupt sets of proteins in the brain that regulate the connection strength between the brain development, nerve cells, memory, learning and cognition. This study, along with the previous study discussed, confirm that the mutations and these sets of proteins affect the brain function of schizophrenics.

What The Discovery Provides

This discovery provides a new conceptual framework for considering the idea  that core brain processes become disrupted in schizophrenia. It might also suggest an overlap between what causes schizophrenia and other neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and intellectual disability. More research needs to be done in order to figure out the role these genetic mutations might play in other psychiatric disorders, as well as other common mechanisms.

Understanding the genetics behind schizophrenia will help create better, and safer, treatments. This and other genetic research into mental illnesses will also help shed light on the biological causes and underlying issues of emotional and behavioral disturbances.

These three studies provide important insights into schizophrenia and why some people develop the disorder while others are only carriers. They will help researchers find other ways to screen and diagnose the condition, as well as creating discovering new treatment methods. Although further research is needed to fully understand the implications of these studies, they provide further understanding about the disease and the effects that the genes cause, even in those who do are only carriers of the genes.

At Sovereign Health Group, we offer treatment for mild to moderate cases of schizophrenia, along with any underlying or co-occurring conditions. Our Mental Health Program utilizes experiential and expressive therapeutic modalities including individual and group psychotherapy and complementary alternative therapeutic activities such as yoga, meditation, equine therapy, art therapy, and music therapy. You can learn more about our program here or call our Admissions team at 866-264-9778.

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