A specific human gene, DCC, may be responsible for serious mental illness later in life when it becomes dysfunctional during adolescence, according to researchers at the Douglas Institute Research Center, affiliated with Canada’s McGill University.
That knowledge highlights the importance of early intervention for the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse. Parents whose children are diagnosed with mental illness often say that it became apparent that there was “something not quite right” when the children were adolescents. However, obtaining mental health treatment is often not a priority until there is a serious crisis.
Translational Psychiatry Study
The study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, links adult onset of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression with brain development in teens. The DCC gene affects the dopamine system in the brain during adolescence when the medial prefrontal cortex area is still developing and individuals are particularly susceptible to mental illness, so it is being called the “teen gene.”
“The prefrontal cortex is associated with judgment, decision-making, and mental flexibility,” McGill University professor Cecilia Flores, senior investigator on the study that isolated the gene, said in a press release. “Its functioning is important for learning, motivation, and cognitive processes. Given its prolonged development into adulthood, this region is particularly susceptible to being shaped by life experience in adolescence, such as stress and abuse of drugs.”
Flores studies abnormalities of the brain at the cellular and molecular levels, with a focus on relationships with the neurotransmitter dopamine and behavior associated with schizophrenia and addiction. “Certain psychiatric disorders can be related to alterations in the function of the prefrontal cortex and to changes in the activity of the brain chemical dopamine,” she said.
Gene is Responsible for Wiring the Brains of Teens
The study is based on a series of experiments which found that DCC is responsible for organizing the “wiring” of the prefrontal cortex during adolescence. Working with mouse models, the researchers found that even subtle changes in DCC during adolescence significantly affect the way the prefrontal cortex functions later in life, including the ability to adapt to a changing environment.
When the DCC gene is not regulated normally, it appears to interfere with normal brain development and cause neurological and cognitive disorders. Based on their work with mouse models, the research team investigated DCC levels in the brains of humans who had committed suicide compared to a control group made up of people who had died suddenly. What they found, which they described as “remarkable,” was that DCC levels were about 48 percent higher in the brains of those who had committed suicide.
Research indicates that adolescence is a period of high risk for development of psychiatric disorders related to the prefrontal cortex. This risk is directly related to DCC and the development of the dopamine system in the brains of teenagers.
The research has identified a mechanism that is critical to the way the dopamine system in the prefrontal cortex matures. This provides a target for the development of new medications, but it also offers insight into opportunities for other interventions, Flores said.
“We know that the DCC gene can be altered by experiences during adolescence. This already gives us hope, because therapy, including social support, is itself a type of experience which might modify the function of the DCC gene during this critical time and perhaps reduce vulnerability to an illness.”
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Blog post by: Marissa Maldonado
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