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

Article comments

My 56 yr. old brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 36. He had a normal life up until that time: high-paying professional career, owned his own home, never smoked or drank alcohol, had friends, played sports & was more social than I was. Without having all the variables listed here, I'm wondering if this "later" onset has a genetic component as well. The one variable I can confirm is that he did take (long-term=years of) antihistamines due to allergies & there were two possible (but not medically diagnosed) cases of paranoia/psychotic behavior in two female biological relatives: one maternal aunt & one maternal grandmother. I don't see much info for families on research for "later" or even "late" onset of paranoid schizophrenia.

Though my comments are being addressed here in your column, my attempt is to draw attention, bring awareness to, and request assistance with the issues I address below for your entire organization. I see and read all these research projects and reports by the Brain & Research Foundation. But, can someone please tell me what is being done to help these persons with schizophrenia? Many times, these articles address the need for a "large arsenal of already approved drugs", but they are debilitating, life-altering, physically and brain damaging, and induce way too much chemical dependency and many times don't "fix the problems".

I am shocked that, since the tragedy of Sandy Hook, there hasn't been more inputs (stories of recovery, studies of the effects of early enforcement of meds on our youth, etc) to your website.

Where are the studies to evaluate the effects of "too-early" enforcement of ADHD meds like Ritalin by our school officials? Or doctors prescribing usage of anti-psychotic meds on our young bodies and brains? In my personal opinion, I see these drugs prescribed to our children as the driving cause of the on-sight of mental illness (i.e. psychosis in later years). These drugs are altering the brain and personality development of our youth and creating a drug dependency for the rest of their life.

I try to read your articles of research discoveries with a sense of hope for my son suffering from schizophrenia, but do NOT see anything being done in the near-term with any positive outcomes. Where is all this leading, and what is being done to "help" our loved ones suffering from this crippling disease? Despite our country's desperate need to act now to address issues driving and impacting this mental health crisis, I am not feeling the" hope".

Our community officials and organizations are continually decreasing funds for facilities available to intervene at first onset of these diseases, enlighten and offer a sense of hope for those ill, thereby preventing years of lack of and/or misdiagnosis. My son and family have suffered for 11 years before finally able to even begin to obtain effective, long-term, intensive treatment for his debilitating disease, despite years of our cries for help. We live in one of the highest per-capita income counties in the country. Yet the "help", facilities, effective state and community services are NOT available. Only when legal issues are involved as a result of the mental condition, can one get the help they need. That "fact" is NOT being addressed, NOT the driving force for changes to the "medical/mental system" or "laws", and it's NOT acceptable for our country to continue to neglect our ill and not mandate necessary changes to this crisis we are all being subjected to (directly or indirectly) .

Let us all mandate establishment of the much-needed facilities and early-intervention for our family, friends, neighbors, and associates.

As I see it, your role could be one to perform research and studies focused on the chemically-induced effects responsible for the onset of these illnesses and put less emphasis on the "drugs" as a means of sustaining a "normalized" way of living. What is more important genuine care and assistance to our ill to lead normal lives with peace and happiness OR the profits of the controlling, damaging, unethical marketing of pharmaceutical companies? Before you answer that question, heed your conscience and let your thoughts of humane treatment be your guide.

My son hasnt suffered as long as yous has, but i completely understand your frustration at the lack of help available. My son was being treated by a doctor nearly 100 miles from home. Things would go well for a few weeks or months before he would end up back in the hospital. The last time he had a serious episode he was taken to the jail instead of the hospital. That was 10 months ago. The DA office is in agreement that he should be transferred to the state mental hospital, but due to the courts steps and procedures they have to follow, he is still in jail....without treatment. So, from what we have experienced, the help available is not very helpful.

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Please note that researchers cannot give specific recommendations or advice about treatment; diagnosis and treatment are complex and highly individualized processes that require comprehensive face-to- face assessment. Please visit our "Ask an Expert" section to see a list of Q & A with NARSAD Grantees.
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