Innovative Genetic Study Uncovers Early Brain Development Link in Causing Schizophrenia

Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., Expert on Schizophrenia
Mary-Claire King, Ph.D.

In an important new study exploring the causes of schizophrenia, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee and Scientific Council Member, Mary-Claire King, Ph.D. of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues, used sophisticated genetic analysis to identify where and when spontaneous mutations in genes likely cause damage in the brain. They were able to determine that some people with schizophrenia may suffer from impaired birth of new neurons, or neurogenesis, in the front of their brain during prenatal development. Results of the study were published August 1 in the journal Cell.

The research team integrated genomic data with newly available online transcriptome resources that show where in the brain and when in development genes turn on. They compared spontaneous mutations in 105 people with schizophrenia with those in 84 unaffected siblings, in families without previous histories of the illness. The researchers identified mutations in 54 different genes in the subjects with schizophrenia. Further analysis indicated that these genes normally work together, particularly in the prenatal stages of brain development.

“Processes critical for the brain’s development can be revealed by the mutations that disrupt them,” explained Dr. King. “Mutations can lead to loss of integrity of a whole pathway, not just of a single gene. Our results implicate networked genes underlying a pathway responsible for orchestrating neurogenesis in the prefrontal cortex in schizophrenia.”

The findings support the long-standing notion that schizophrenia’s roots lie in early brain development. They also highlight the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain that organizes information from other brain regions to coordinate executive functions like thinking, planning, attention span, working memory, problem-solving and self-regulation—as vulnerable in the disorder. Impairments in such functions that may start before the onset of symptoms in early adulthood, when the prefrontal cortex fully matures, appear to be early signs of the illness.

Read more about this research on the Schizophrenia Research Forum.

The Schizophrenia Research Forum is fully sponsored by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation—a virtual community of scientists collaborating in their quest for causes, improved treatments and better understanding of schizophrenia.