Johns Hopkins researchers say they have discovered a cause-and-effect relationship between two well-established biological risk factors for schizophrenia previously believed to be independent of one another.
The findings could eventually lead researchers to develop better drugs to treat the cognitive dysfunction associated with schizophrenia and possibly other mental illnesses.
Researchers have long studied the role played in the brain's neurons by the Disrupted-in-Schizophrenia 1 (DISC1) gene, a mutation with one of the strongest links to an increased risk of developing the debilitating psychiatric illness.
In a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the laboratory of Mikhail V. Pletnikov, M.D., Ph.D., in collaboration with the laboratory of Solomon H. Snyder, M.D., D.Sc., instead looked at the role the DISC1 gene plays in glia cells known as astrocytes, a kind of support cell in the brain that helps neurons communicate with one another.
"Abnormalities in glia cells could be as important as abnormalities in neuronal cells themselves," says Pletnikov, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the study's leader. "Most gene work has been done with neurons. But we also need to understand a lot more about the role that genetic mutations in glia cells play because neuron-glia interaction appears crucial in ensuring the brain operates normally."
Besides the paranoia and hallucinations that characterize the disease, schizophrenics have cognitive deficits, leaving them unable to think clearly or organize their thoughts and behavior.
Previous studies found that one of the roles of astrocytes is to secrete the neurotransmitter D-serine, which helps promote the transmission of glutamate in the brain, believed to be a key to cognitive function. Schizophrenics have decreased glutamate transmission. It appears, Pletnikov sa
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Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions