Irish team identify schizophrenia risk

Mental health condition is poorly understood
  • Deborah Condon

Irish scientists have identified how some genes may increase the risk of schizophrenia. This discovery could aid the development of new drugs for the poorly understood condition.

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that causes disturbances in thoughts, perceptions, emotions and behaviour. It affects about one in every 100 people worldwide and usually occurs first in adolescence or early adulthood, although it can also occur later in life.

According to scientists at NUI Galway, the biology of schizophrenia is poorly understood, however it is known that it is highly genetic. This means that many of the condition's risk factors can be found in the more than 20,000 genes of the human genome.

Previous large-scale studies had identified SDCCAG8 as a gene involved in schizophrenia and the NUI Galway team decided to investigate further its role in the illness.

They reduced the function of this particular gene and found that this caused changes in the behaviour of brain cells.

The scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing to remove SDCCAG8 from cultured brain cells. This resulted in the cells struggling to migrate and to change into more specialised brain cells.

They also found that the functions of hundreds of other genes were also affected in these cells, potentially disrupting normal brain development and function, and putting individuals at risk of developing mental illness.

"Our analyses indicate that genes influenced by SDCCAG8 are important for different brain functions and this presents us with a model for how other genes may contribute to the biology of schizophrenia.

"This can be exploited to help understand the biology of schizophrenia in greater detail and open up opportunities for new drug development, which is badly needed for this mental illness," explained one of the study's lead researchers, Prof Ciaran Morrison, head of NUI Galway's School of Natural Sciences.

Details of these findings are published in the journal, Human Molecular Genetics.

This year, NUI Galway is enrolling its first class of students in a new undergraduate degree course in genetics and genomics. According to Dr Derek Morris, programme director of the new course, advances in this field over the last 15 years "have revolutionised many areas of biology and biomedical science".

For more information on this new course, click here.


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