Duke and Johns Hopkins researchers are a step closer to discovering biomarkers that could help in early identification of people who might develop schizophrenia or other brain disorders, and track their treatment. What they found was a "switch" in the brain that regulates the behavior of a protein that, when altered, increases susceptibility to schizophrenia and mood disorders.
Currently, most mental-illness diagnoses rely mostly on patient behavior. This discovery could change that by providing a means of identifying and tracking this molecular switch, said Johns Hopkins researcher Akira Sawa, in a release.
"This work sheds light on what has been a big black box in neuroscience," Duke researcher Nicholas Katsanis said in a prepared statement. "It helps answer the question of what happens when neurons stop dividing and start moving along to populate the brain."
Katsanis said that perhaps 10 percent of all psychiatric illnesses are driven by defects in this switch system. "So we now have ways to interpret variation in humans, in a context that is relevant to their particular cases, to their physiology--that is where medicine will move next," Katsanis said.
Katsanis is an expert in Bardet-Biedl syndrome (BBS), which is a genetic disease with autism-like symptoms. Sawa is an expert on DISC1, a factor in schizophrenia. Together, they discovered that these proteins are involved in a key switch for neurons necessary for brain development.
The results, which appear in the journal Nature, show that some fraction of schizophrenia is developmentally regulated, Katsanis said in the release. "Even though the disease manifests itself after pubescence, scientists have suspected that the underpinnings are prenatal," he said. "We can greet this news with sadness or see it as an opportunity: we may have 20 years to help before a person starts experiencing symptoms, if we can develop techniques to use early enough."