For the first time in history, scientists have found a molecular process in the brain that they believe to be partially responsible in triggering Schizophrenia – a condition that affects a whopping 1 in 100 Australians (or 150,000 to 200,000 of us).
In simple terms, this is a bloody huge revelation, because up until this point, any known causes of the illness have been pretty much non-existent.
The researchers, mainly from the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston, have found that a person’s risk of schizophrenia is significantly increased if they’ve got variants of the gene responsible for Synaptic pruning.
If you did a Psychology subject in high school you may remember what that is, but if not, it’s basically the process where extra neurons and connections in your brain are eliminated to increase the efficiency of information transmission. Pruning is rampant in infancy, as your brain is growing rapidly, and it spikes again during adolescence as you go through puberty.
Like this, but in your head.
The study shows that people with schizophrenia have a variation of a single position in their DNA, which leads to too much pruning, resulting in a heightened loss of grey matter – a brain abnormality seen in post-mortem studies.
One of the researchers, Steven Hyman, says the findings are “the most significant mechanistic study about schizophrenia ever,” and will alter the approach to research into the condition, which has seen no progress in decades.
Sure, certain drugs exist that can help with features of schizophrenia (such as psychotic thinking), but they only tackle symptoms. Researchers are hopeful the finding will result in earlier detection efforts. Of course, one of the biggest difficulties with any research into mental illness is that unlike say, a broken arm or a viral disease, symptoms and causes can’t be looked at under a microscope.
“We now have a molecular handle, a pathway and a gene, to develop better models,” says researcher Beth Stevens. “This is the first exciting clue, maybe even the most important we’ll ever have, but it will be decades” before a true cure is found.
She’s wary of getting too excited about the findings, though, saying “Hope is a wonderful thing. False promise is not.”
If you’ve found this post triggering, don’t hesitate to phone either BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.