Single Gene Plays Defining Role in Schizophrenia Symptoms and Outcomes

NARSAD Grantee, Aristotle Voineskos, M.D., Ph.D., FRCP(C) from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Expert on Schizophrenia
Dr. Aristotle Voineskos

In a new imaging-genetics study, NARSAD Grantees have uncovered a single gene that may explain dramatic differences among people with schizophrenia. The study, led by NARSAD Grantees, Aristotle Voineskos, M.D., Ph.D., FRCP(C) and James Kennedy, MD, FRCPC, FRSC, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) showed that patients with a version of the microRNA-137 gene (MIR137) tended to develop the mental illness at a younger age and had unique brain characteristics.

Featured in the latest issue of Molecular Psychiatry, the results of this study could be a “paradigm shift in the field,” according to Dr. Voineskos. Before this study was conducted, it was thought that a person’s gender was the best predictor of the age of the onset of schizophrenia symptoms. “We showed that this gene has a bigger effect on age-at-onset than one’s gender has,” Voineskos continued. The outcomes of this study could provide more information about prognosis and how a person might respond to schizophrenia treatments.

Researchers studied MIR137 in more than 500 individuals living with schizophrenia. They found that in patients with a specific version of the gene, the average age of onset for schizophrenia was 20.8 years old, about three years younger than those without this version. "Although three years of difference in age-at-onset may not seem large, those years are important in the final development of brain circuits in the young adult," said Dr. Kennedy, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Scientific Council Member and Director of CAMH's Neuroscience Research Department. "This can have major impact on disease outcome."

In a separate part of the study, 213 people were studied with MRI technology enabling the researchers to see that patients with the same version of the gene tended to have smaller hippocampi, larger lateral ventricles and more impairment in white matter tracts.

Read the press release