Schizophrenia–Single Mutation Might Damage Brain Pathway

Schizophrenia is characterized by a broad range of behaviors that profoundly disruption in the lives of people suffering from the condition, as well as in the lives of the people around them. It strikes without regard to gender, race, social class or culture. Throughout history, the disorder has been a source of bewilderment. Those suffering from the illness once were thought to be possessed by demons and were feared, tormented, exiled or locked up forever.

We’ve come a long way since then, but still have a long way to go. One aspect of schizophrenia is that it can be either inherited or appear in a family with no history of the condition. Now, a new discovery is changing the way scientists think about non-inherited schizophrenia–according to researchers at the University of Washington, rather than individual gene mutations being responsible for schizophrenia on their own, it appears more likely that a gene mutation damages an entire neural pathway, which creates a ripple effect across networks as the brain develops.

So what is now known as by one diagnosis — schizophrenia — might actually be many different conditions. According to Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., a University of Washington grantee working on the project:

“Processes critical for the brain’s development can be revealed by the mutations that disrupt them. Mutations can lead to loss of integrity of a whole pathway, not just of a single gene.”

The new research supports the relatively new model of schizophrenia as a neurodevelopmental disorder in which psychosis is a late, potentially preventable stage. In the study, researchers were able to trace back spontaneous gene mutations to where and when they likely caused brain damage. They found some individuals might develop the precursors for schizophrenia even before birth, because their brains produced damaged neurons as a developing fetus.

Previous research had already found a connection between gene mutations and non-inherited schizophrenia that could be traced to genes involved in brain development. The new research supports earlier studies that had implicated the prefrontal cortex in schizophrenia. The prefrontal cortex pulls information from other brain regions to coordinate functions such as thinking, planning, attention span, memory and problem-solving. Problems with these functions are early signs of the condition.

The Onset of Schizophrenia

The onset of schizophrenia in most people is a gradual deterioration that occurs in early adulthood — usually in a person’s early 20s. Loved ones and friends may spot early warning signs long before the primary symptoms of schizophrenia occur. During this initial pre-onset phase, a person may seem without goals in their life, becoming increasingly eccentric and unmotivated. They may isolate themselves and remove themselves from family situations and friends. They may stop engaging in other activities that they also used to enjoy, such as hobbies or volunteering.

Warning signs that may indicate someone is heading toward an episode of schizophrenia include:

  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Irrational, bizarre or odd statements or beliefs
  • Increased paranoia or questioning others’ motivations
  • Becoming more emotionless
  • Hostility or suspiciousness
  • Increasing reliance on drugs or alcohol (in an attempt to self-medicate)
  • Lack of motivation
  • Speaking in a strange manner unlike themselves
  • Inappropriate laughter
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Deterioration in their personal appearance and hygiene

While there is no guarantee that one or more of these symptoms will lead to schizophrenia, a number of them occurring together should be cause for concern, especially if it appears that the individual is getting worse over time. This is the ideal time to act to help the person — even if it turns out not to be schizophrenia.

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