Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness that strikes young and middle-aged people in the prime of their life and often leaves them unable to work or function effectively in society. About one in every 100 Americans is affected by this illness, but the cause still remains largely unknown. This week, a group of researchers has used genome data to pull back the curtain on some of genetic causes of schizophrenia with the hope that a better understanding might help identify at risk individuals in the future and improve treatments when symptoms do appear.
What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia has long been portrayed in the media as a kind of “split personality,” but this is a complete misunderstanding of what schizophrenia is actually like. Schizophrenia is an illness of thinking and emotion where the brain struggles to properly organize information from the outside world and interpretations from within. This can lead to:
- Hallucinations, where a person sees, hears or feels things that are not actually there.
- Delusions, where a person develops false beliefs about the world around them or who they are as a person.
- Disorganized thoughts, where a person struggles to follow the thread of their thoughts and communicate ideas to others.
- Processing problems that can lead to memory issues, attention problems, trouble understanding social situations and difficulty making reasonable decisions.
People with schizophrenia can also lose some of their ability to express emotions and often lose the motivation or drive to do everyday things. In summary, schizophrenia morphs the world into a strange, unreliable and terrifying place that is incredibly difficult to navigate for those affected by the illness. It is one of the most disabling and economically catastrophic illnesses a person can suffer from.
What do we know about what causes schizophrenia?
Very little is known about what causes schizophrenia and why it appears when it does and not earlier in life. Researchers think part of the problem is that schizophrenia is probably several diseases that look similar that have been lumped together into one category. That might explain why some people respond very well to certain kinds of treatment, while others struggle to find a way to control their symptoms. While we don’t know much about what causes schizophrenia, we do have several medications that can help those suffering.
What is known is that schizophrenia travels along family lines. If one identical twin has schizophrenia, the other has a 50/50 chance of ending up with the illness. If you have a sibling with schizophrenia, the chance is about one in seven. Those numbers point to the fact that schizophrenia isn’t just about genetics, since even identical twins who have the exact same genes don’t always get the disease. But the fact that there’s a genetic component has given researchers hope that unlocking the genetic part might reveal what puts a person at risk and what sorts of treatments might best prevent or manage disabling symptoms.
What did these researchers do and what did they find?
Past studies had tried to look for genes linked to schizophrenia, but most of them were fairly small. This new study looked at genes from almost 6,000 people with schizophrenia and compared them with more than 10,000 people without the illness. They sequenced their entire genomes and looked at all the differences between those who had schizophrenia and those who didn’t. Specifically, they looked at areas of the genome that might have been accidentally duplicated and that might contribute to disease.
The researchers found that many of the genes that appeared in their analysis have to do with regulating the chemical messengers and receptors that nerve cells use to communicate with each other. The delicate balance of these chemicals is essential to correct signaling. If they get out of whack or neurons have trouble interpreting the messages, the brain will start to go haywire. Two chemicals in particular, called GABA and glutamate, seemed to be playing an important role. The researchers were even able to hone in on specific types of receptors that might be playing a role in causing schizophrenia.
How does this affect me?
This study provides new information on what might be going wrong in the brain of a person with schizophrenia and how we might be able to fix it. The study also showed a new way forward in understanding some of the causes of mental illness so that we can better treat them. If you think you or someone you love may be struggling with a mental illness of some kind, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional and find support.