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Protein researches closing in on the mystery of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a severe disease for which there is still no effective medical treatment. In an attempt to understand exactly what happens in the brain of a schizophrenic person, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have analyzed proteins in the brains of rats that have been given hallucinogenic drugs. This may pave the way for new and better medicines.

Seven per cent of the adult population suffers from schizophrenia, and although scientists have tried for centuries to understand the disease, they still do not know what causes the disease or which physiological changes it causes in the body. Doctors cannot make the diagnosis by looking for specific physiological changes in the patient's blood or tissue, but have to diagnose from behavioral symptoms.

In an attempt to find the physiological signature of schizophrenia, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark conducted tests on rats, and they now believe that the signature lies in some specific, measurable proteins. Knowing these proteins and comparing their behaviour to proteins in the brains of not schizophrenic people may make it possible to develop more effective drugs.

It is extremely difficult to study brain activity in schizophrenic people, which is why researchers often use animal models in their strive to understand the mysteries of the schizophrenic brain. Rat brains resemble human brains in so many ways that it makes sense to study them if one wants to learn more about the human brain.

The strong hallucinogenic drug phenocyclidine (PCP), also known as angel's dust, provides a range of symptoms in people which are very similar to schizophrenia.

"When we give PCP to rats, the rats become valuable study objects for schizophrenia researchers", explains Ole Nrregaard Jensen, professor and head of Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Together with Pawel Palmowski, Adelina Rogowska-Wrzesinska and others from a.o. Danish Technological Institute, he is the author of a scientific paper about the discovery, published in the international Journal of Proteome Research.

Among the symptoms and reactions that can be observed in both humans and rats are changes in movement and reduced cognitive functions such as impaired memory, attention and learning ability.

"Scientists have studied PCP rats for decades, but until now no one really knew what was going on in the rat brains on a molecular level. We now present what we believe to be the largest proteomics data set to date", says Ole Nrregaard Jensen.

PCP is absorbed very quickly by the brain, and it only stays in the brain for a few hours. Therefore, it was important for researchers to examine the rat brain cells soon after the rats were injected with the hallucinogenic drug.

"Already after 15 minutes we could see changes in the proteins in the brain, and after 240 minutes it was almost over", says Ole Nrregaard Jensen.

The University of Southern Denmark holds some of the world's most advanced equipment for studying proteins, and Ole Nrregaard Jensen and his colleagues used the university's so-called mass spectrometers for their protein studies.

"We found 2604 proteins, and we saw changes in 352 of them, that can be associated with the PCP injections. These 352 proteins will be extremely interesting to study in more detail to see if they are also altered in people with schizophrenia - and if that's the case, then it will of course be interesting to try to develop a drug that can prevent the protein changes that lead to schizophrenia", says Ole Nrregaard Jensen about the discovery and the work that now lies ahead.

The 352 proteins in rat brains responded immediately when the animals were exposed to PCP. Roughly speaking, the drug made proteins turn on or off when they should not turn on and off. This started a chain reaction of other disturbances in the molecular network around the proteins, such as changes in metabolism and calcium balance.

"It is these 352 proteins that cause the rats to change their behavior - and the events are probably comparable to the devastating changes in a schizophrenic brain", explains Ole Nrregaard Jensen.

The protocol for studying rat brain proteins with mass spectrometry, developed by Ole Nrregaard Jensen and his colleagues, is not limited to schizophrenia studies - it can also be used to explore other diseases.


Contact: Birgitte Svennevig
University of Southern Denmark

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