The Genetics of Schizophrenia: A Big Step on a Long Path

You may have recently seen headlines touting a study where "108 gene loci," or specific locations within genes, were isolated as being influencers on life risk for developing schizophrenia.  If you're like me you might have been tempted to shrug your shoulders at the news. 108 genetic code locations seems like a massive number.  First, not only does that sound like a very large amount of genetic information, but to a non-geneticist like myself, the number of genes seems to increase the complexity of using the information for developing treatments.  

So I decided to see what actual experts had to say.  Three particular aspects of this study make it noteworthy not only for schizophrenia research, but also for other brain related conditions like autism and intellectual disabilities.  

First, one exciting element of the study is the unprecedented sample size.  Researchers used over 140,000 DNA samples in this study, the largest number ever used in this type of research.  This sort of sample size increases the accuracy and certainty of the findings and was only made possible by sharing of data between different scientists and laboratories.  This study is an important indication that cooperation between laboratories can produce big results. 

Second, although a genetic component of mental illness has long been inferred from different studies, this is apparently the first time that the specific locations of genetic information have been discovered, especially with this degree of certainty.  This finding gives a boost to the value of investing in more of this sort of research. 

Third, but perhaps most importantly to people with schizophrenia and their families, the research may have provided a clue for a new direction for pharmacological research.  Many of the genetic locations pinpointed in this study point to the possible involvement of the immune system in the development of schizophrenia.  Current drugs focus on targeting brain receptors, but these drugs don't work for everyone (not to mention side effects for many people).  This new avenue of focus could provide a new target for drug treatments, and one that wasn't seen as a promising path for research until this study.  

References:

http://www.nature.com/news/gene-hunt-gain-for-mental-health-1.15602

http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2014/mapping-the-risk-architecture-of-mental-disorders.shtml

http://www.nature.com/news/cause-is-not-everything-in-mental-illness-1.15628