Schizophrenia may be triggered or caused by a gene called NAPRT1, according to research by Australian and Indian scientists.
Schizophrenia affects one-in-100 people worldwide with varying degrees of severity, with symptoms ranging from severe depression to full-blown hallucinations and psychosis.
Researchers from the University of Queensland and the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai spent nearly 20 years analysing the genomes of more than 3000 Chennai residents and their families.
Professor Bryan Mowry from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute said they identified a gene called NAPRT1 that appeared to be linked to schizophrenia.
“We’ve identified a number of genes now with links to schizophrenia but we still don’t exactly know what each gene does, what its contribution is to developing the disease,” Professor Mowry said.
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“A goal is to identify therapeutic targets in all of these pathways which encode the genes we’ve identified, which will hopefully then be used to develop more effective personal medications.”
After making the strong correlation between NAPRT1 and the mental disorder in the Indian study, the research team backed up its findings by checking for the same correlation in a much larger European sample – more than 60,000 patients.
“We found there is an association [between the disease and NAPRT1] in the European population, but not at the same level as the association we found in India,” he said. “The fact that it’s replicated in the European data gives us confidence it’s a robust finding.”
Professor Mowry said the fact that there was lower correlation in the European population highlighted the importance of looking beyond European-based datasets when investigating genetic links to disease.
Part of the next phase of research involves using zebrafish to test how NAPRT1 affects brain development and function.
The researchers are using zebrafish instead of the more traditional mice or rats because the tropical fish are translucent, meaning their brains can be studied in real time without the need to dissect them.
They also reproduce much more quickly than rodents, allowing researchers to look at the propagation of the gene through multiple generations in a much shorter time frame.
Professor Mowry first conceived of the study in the late 1990s along with his colleague Professor Rangaswamy Thara, the co-founder of Chennai’s Schizophrenia Research Foundation.
He said while it was still a long way off, the ultimate goal for all researchers working in the field was to find a way to correct the disorder.
“Dr Thara and I are both psychiatrists and we’ve both seen the effect that schizophrenia has on individuals and their families and communities,” he said.
“So it’s been good to make a contribution to the worldwide effort to develop tailor-made medications without side-effects, and also to understand the cause of this disease.”
The research was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
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