Schizophrenia’s Strongest Known Genetic Risk Deconstructed
Versions of a gene linked to schizophrenia may trigger runaway pruning of the teenage brain’s still-maturing communications infrastructure, NIH-funded researchers have discovered. People with the illness show fewer such connections between neurons, or synapses. The gene switched on more in people with the suspect versions, who faced a higher risk of developing the disorder, characterized by hallucinations, delusions and impaired thinking and emotions.
“Normally, pruning gets rid of excess connections we no longer need, streamlining our brain for optimal performance, but too much pruning can impair mental function,” said Dr. Thomas Lehner, director of the Office of Genomics Research Coordination at NIMH, which co-funded the study along with the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and other NIH components. “It could help explain schizophrenia’s delayed age-of-onset of symptoms in late adolescence/early adulthood and shrinkage of the brain’s working tissue. Interventions that put the brakes on this pruning process-gone-awry could prove transformative.”
The gene, called C4 (complement component 4), sits in by far the tallest tower on schizophrenia’s genomic “skyline” of more than 100 chromosomal sites harboring known genetic risk for the disorder. Affecting about 1 percent of the population, schizophrenia is known to be as much as 90 percent heritable, yet discovering how specific genes work to confer risk has proven elusive, until now.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Steve McCarroll of the Broad Institute and Harvard Medical School leveraged the statistical power conferred by analyzing the genomes of 65,000 people, 700 postmortem brains and the precision of mouse genetic engineering to discover the secrets of schizophrenia’s strongest known genetic risk. C4’s role represents the most compelling evidence, to date, linking specific gene versions to a biological process that could cause at least some cases of the illness. The results were published Jan. 27 in Nature.
“Since schizophrenia was first described over a century ago, its underlying biology has been a black box, in part because it has been virtually impossible to model the disorder in cells or animals,” said McCarroll. “The human genome is providing a powerful new way [of prying] into this disease. Understanding these genetic effects on risk is a way of prying open that black box, peering inside and starting to see actual biological mechanisms.”