Although schizophrenia carries a high hereditary risk of around 80 percent, identifying specific genes for this condition has been challenging. Now a new genetic analysis method has found that thispotentially devastating mental illness isn’t just one disease. It’s a collection of eight distinctive disorders. This discovery could lead to more personalized diagnostic methods so doctors can treat isolated causes instead of just symptoms like hallucinating and hearing voices. Current treatments include Seroquel, an atypical antipsychotic medication that relieves schizophrenia symptoms by acting on brain chemicals.
Genetic Cluster Discovery
By matching strict DNA variations from 4,200 schizophrenia patients and 3,800 healthy controls to individual patients’ specific symptoms, investigators studied how certain genetic profiles trigger specific schizophrenia symptoms. They analyzed almost 700,000 genome sites where single DNA units changed to determine how certain genetic variations interact to cause this mental illness. The scientists distinguished the gene groupings that contribute to each unique schizophrenia class. These genetic clusters create an explicit symptom set for each variety.
Genes don’t function alone, reports study co-author C. Robert Cloninger, M.D., Ph.D., a genetics and psychiatry professor at Washington University’s School of Medicine. They work together similar to an orchestra. If the players are harmonious, their group effort will lead to health. But performing in disorderly ways can cause distinct schizophrenic classes. Cloninger and his team discovered that one particular genetic configuration triggers word salad, or odd, disorganized speech, in some people while a different formation causes others to hear voices.
An average person’s odds of developing schizophrenia are below one percent. The investigators found that some genetic patterns increased disease risks more than others. They matched certain symptoms to particular genetic features, which associated chaotic speech and behaviors with a group of DNA deviations carrying a 100-percent chance of acquiring schizophrenia. In another group, they found that specific genetic deviations interact to produce schizophrenia with 95-percent assurance.
The researchers studied one woman with a genetic arrangement that carries a 95-percent likelihood of causing schizophrenia. Her symptoms began by the young age of 5. She put tape over her dolls’ mouths to prevent them from whispering and calling out her name. A patient with a different genetic profile that included a 71-percent chance of developing schizophrenia underwent a more common disease pattern of beginning to hear voices when she was 17 years old.
Doctors aren’t clear why only some of the people with 70-percent chances develop schizophrenia. Their environments may be key influencers so that those with good nutrition and strong family bonds might escape this mental illness while others who endure great deprivation or trauma may have severe cases. When genetic profiles convey nearly 100-percent odds of schizophrenia occurring, Cloninger notes that some people may be unable to avoid this disease. Yet, if physicians could predict high-risk cases, they also might be capable of tailoring early interventions to help all patients manage their conditions and the resulting stress better.
Diagnostic Improvements to Come
Psychiatrist Stephen Marder, a professor from the University of California, views this study as progress beyond current diagnostic methods, which he considers to be relatively primitive. Doctors base mental illness diagnoses on patients’ symptoms and family histories today. Unfortunately, many sufferers don’t receive accurate diagnoses for years, and finding the most helpful treatments with minimal disruptive side effects can take even longer.
Robert Freedman, the University of Colorado’s psychiatry chair, describes the struggle to uncover the source of schizophrenia’s strong familial history. When one identical twin experiences schizophrenia, the other one has an 80-percent chance of developing the disease. Previously however, doctors weren’t very successful at distinguishing single-gene schizophrenia causes. But this new study found that genes team up like good or bad hands of cards. Unfortunately, it uncovered multiple losing combinations.
The new findings support how scientists have changed their view regarding genetics causing common diseases, reports Marder. Very few patients develop illnesses like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia that single genes that cause. Most prevalent diseases including cancer stem from larger gene combinations. For example, different genes drive six or more breast cancer diseases. Modern tests can predict a patient’s risk of developing some breast cancer types while others help doctors prescribe the most beneficial drugs accordingly. If schizophrenia protocols can catch up with those for cancer, many patients will reap welcome benefits.
Cloninger hopes his findings will lead to more refined, gene-specific diagnostic methods to replace today’s trial-and-error schizophrenia treatment approach. Getting the best medication on the first try could be very helpful. When doctors can pinpoint the most helpful drug option on a per-patient basis, prescribing lower doses and less troublesome side effects may be possible. Cloninger hopes that will encourage more patients to continue drug therapy and enjoy better outcomes.
When to Seek Treatment
Obvious, ongoing alterations to your personality and behaviors can signal schizophrenia. The Schizophrenia Society of Canada recommends seeking medical care if you experience a combination of these persistent symptoms:
- Withdrawing from social activities and contacts.
- Angry, fearful, or irrational responses to family and friends.
- Disturbed sleep.
- School or work declines.
- Nonsensical speech.
- Abrupt excesses like extreme activity or religiosity.
- Personal hygiene deterioration.
- Difficulties concentrating and controlling thoughts.
- Hearing nonexistent voices and/or sounds.
- Seeing imaginary people and/or things.
- Constant paranoia that someone’s watching you.
- Inability to switch off your imagination, delusions, and/or bizarre ideas.
- Increased anxiety.
- Mood swings.
- Weakness, pains, and/or weird body sensations.