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Scientists just made a groundbreaking discovery to understand schizophrenia

Speed News Desk | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:31 IST

This might be one of the biggest medical breakthrough of this century. Scientists on 27 January said they have identified a specific gene and molecular process in the brain that helps to trigger schizophrenia.

The feat was achieved by genetic analysis of nearly 65,000 individuals.

A number of people across the world suffer from schizophrenia - a disease characterised by hallucinations, emotional withdrawal, and a declining cognitive function, beginning in adolescence or early adulthood.

Despite decades of research, scientists have made very little progress in treating schizophrenia - partly because it has been so difficult to narrow in on the cause.

The drugs available to treat schizophrenia soften some of its symptoms but do not touch the underlying cause.

What is the new discovery?

The results, according to the researchers, provide the first ever biological handle on the ancient disorder. The findings may also help solve other mysteries - including why the disorder often begins in adolescence or young adulthood.

Researchers have found that people who carry a gene that speeds up or strengthens the normal developmental process of "synaptic pruning" in the brain are at a higher risk for developing schizophrenia.

Typically, the brain uses this process to shed weak or unneeded neural connections as it matures. This happens primarily during adolescence and young adulthood, and is concentrated in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with high-level thinking, planning and decision-making.

But in people with schizophrenia, the synaptic pruning process goes into overdrive. This may explain why those individuals have been shown to have fewer neural connections in their prefrontal cortex, and why the disorder almost always shows up during adolescence or young adulthood.

"The great majority of schizophrenia cases present between the ages of 16 and 25, which has always been one of the mysteries of the illness," Dr Steve McCarroll, the co-author of the research told the Huffington Post. "Why would it strike at this particular time in life?"

The researchers found that the gene associated with aggressive tagging of weak neural connections - meaning that more of these connections are eaten away by proteins than they are in a healthy brain - also carries the protein C4. The C4 protein tells another protein to attach to synapses, or neural connectors, in the brain.

"C4 is essentially placing the Post-it note on synapses that says 'eat me,'" said McCarroll said.

How will the findings help?

Researchers say the findings will pave the path for more effective treatments and screening protocols for the disease - such as a test or a drug that could target runaway synaptic pruning.

However, they said the findings do not mean a new treatment will be found soon.

First published: 29 January 2016, 6:39 IST