Scientists have identified a critical function of what they believe to be schizophrenia’s “Rosetta Stone” gene that could hold the key to decoding the function of all genes involved in the disease.
The breakthrough has revealed a vulnerable period in the early stages of the brain’s development that researchers hope can be targeted for future efforts in reversing schizophrenia.
In a paper published today in the journal Science, neuroscientists from Cardiff University describe having uncovered the previously unknown influence of a gene in ensuring healthy brain development.
The gene is known as ‘disrupted in schizophrenia-1’ (DISC-1). Past studies have shown that when mutated, the gene is a high risk factor for mental illness including schizophrenia, major clinical depression and bipolar disorder.
The aim of this latest study was to determine whether DISC-1’s interactions with other proteins, early on in the brain’s development, had a bearing on the brain’s ability to adapt its structure and function (also known as ‘plasticity’) later on in adulthood.
Many genes responsible for the creation of synaptic proteins have previously shown to be strongly linked to schizophrenia and other brain disorders, but until now the reasons have not been understood.
The team, led by Professor Kevin Fox from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, found that in order for healthy development of the brain’s synapses to take place, the DISC-1 gene first needs to bind with two other molecules known as ‘Lis’ and ‘Nudel’.
Their experiments in mice revealed that by preventing DISC-1 from binding with these molecules - using a protein-releasing drug called Tamoxifen at an early stage of the brain’s development - it would lack plasticity once it grows to its adult state, preventing cells (cortical neurons) in the brain’s largest region from being able to form synapses.
The ability to form coherent thoughts and to properly perceive the world is damaged as a consequence of this.
Preventing DISC-1 from binding with ‘Lis’ and ‘Nudel’ molecules, when the brain was fully formed, showed no effect on its plasticity. However, the researchers were able to pinpoint a seven-day window early on in the brain’s development - one week after birth - where failure to bind had an irreversible effect on the brain’s plasticity later on in life.