Scientists at the Vanderbilt University Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics and the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute have identified 104 high-risk genes associated with schizophrenia. Their findings appeared in a study that was published April 15, 2019 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The team used a special computational framework they developed which, according to senior author Dr. Bingshan Li, will open doors for further research. This includes potentially finding existing drugs that could help treat schizophrenia.
“[H]igh-confidence risk genes are predominantly expressed in brain tissues,” reads the study’s abstract, “especially prenatally, and are enriched for targets of approved drugs, suggesting opportunities to reposition existing drugs for [schizophrenia].”
The study also supports the notion that schizophrenia is a developmental disease and, perhaps more importantly, one that can be detected and treated before symptoms even emerge.
What is Schizophrenia?
The research team’s study is immensely valuable for a serious mental disorder that has no cure and is often misunderstood.
Symptoms of schizophrenia can be debilitating, robbing patients of their ability to work, study, or enjoy a satisfying quality of life. They include:
- Hallucinations, such as seeing or hearing things that are not there
- Delusions, or false beliefs
- “Flat” emotional expression
- Reduced speech
- Reduced pleasure
- Problems with working memory, concentration, and decision-making
Typically, schizophrenia is treated by a class of medication called antipsychotics. While these drugs can relieve symptoms, there is no cure for schizophrenia.
Treatment can also get expensive. As a serious illness, patients may need to be hospitalized in specialized psychiatric institutions, and antipsychotic medications are usually taken daily. One option patients have at this time is buying their medicine, such as ABILIFY® (aripiprazole), from online pharmacy referral services like Canada Pharmacy Depot, which ships medicine from licensed pharmacies outside the U.S.
Indeed, finding alternative drugs to treat schizophrenia may help many patients who struggle to afford or access care.
Building on Previous Studies
This study builds upon recent genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that have discovered more than 100 loci (fixed areas on chromosomes) that are associated with schizophrenia. However, scientists were previously unable to confirm where exactly the high-risk genes are located, because loci can regulate gene activity from afar.
The Vanderbilt scientists solved this problem when they developed a type of Bayesian computational framework, and called it the “Integrative Risk Genes Selector.” This framework then identified 104 high-risk genes.
Drugs for Schizophrenia May Already Exist
Interestingly, some of the 104 genes identified encode the same proteins targeted by pharmaceuticals used to treat other diseases, pharmaceuticals that are already available in the market. For example, one gene is thought to be associated with autism spectrum disorder. Therefore, schizophrenia and autism have “shared genetics,” as one researcher pointed out.
With a typical symptom onset between ages 16 and 30, schizophrenia is thought to affect 1% of the general population. However, your risk jumps to 50% if you have an affected identical twin, which is why scientists have long suspected schizophrenia is highly genetic.
Perhaps one day scientists will be able to accurately assess one’s genetic risk for schizophrenia and take appropriate measures to prevent it.