Schizophrenia is a complicated mental health illness which affects a huge number of people globally and, until recently, its causal factors have been largely unknown.
Many theories have been deemed invalid by the scientific community and only approximate genetic and environmental causes have been accepted among the masses.
However, a study of over 60,000 people has recently been conducted with the aim of determining the specific genomic characteristics which are most strongly attributed to the development of the illness.
Prior to this study, Schizophrenia was believed to be connected to a wide array of environmental factors including substance abuse, certain diseases and upbringing as well as being hereditary.
Researchers at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology have now managed to link the development of the disease to a specific gene variation as well as a process named ‘synaptic pruning’.
Synaptic pruning is a process which commonly occurs during the early developmental stages of baby’s up until around 2 years of age. It relates to the elimination of redundant neurons and synaptic connections (cells within the brain) in order to facilitate more efficient bodily growth.
The process is an entirely natural part of early human growth but is uncommon during later years. Researchers now believe a gene called ‘complement component’ (or C4) is associated with the onset of additional synaptic pruning in teenagers and young adults.
The importance of this gene was identified through the collection and analysis of over 100,000 human DNA samples sourced from over 30 countries. The composition of C4 genes are known to have greater variance than other genes and people who exhibited particular forms of C4 were at higher risk of developing schizophrenia.
A separate study conducted on mice contributed to this hypothesis by discovering there was a correlation between the number of C4 genes present in mice and the overall presence of synaptic pruning occurring within their bodies.
These findings mark an important step forward as similar discoveries within diseases such as cancer have paved the way to the creation of new medication and treatments.
As a result of these findings, scientists now believe treatments could be developed which would allow for a reduction in the level of synaptic reduction that occurs, thus decreasing an individual’s chances of contracting the illness.
The next priority for researchers is to now explore how C4 actually affects the body’s level of synaptic pruning as this will provide further granularity into the causes of Schizophrenia and help move further towards possible treatments.
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