Scientists Closer to Understanding Causes of Schizophrenia


Schizophrenia affects up to one percent of the worldwide population, according to the Centers for Disease Control, yet its causes have long been a mystery. A new study by researchers examining genetic components of the mental disorder found that a natural process called “synaptic pruning” may play an important causal role.

Natural Process Gone Awry

In synaptic pruning, which typically occurs during adolescent and early adulthood, the maturing brain sheds weak and redundant connections between neurons. This process normally happens in the prefrontal cortex, which is the epicenter of thinking and planning skills. The study found that those who have genes that intensify or accelerate synaptic pruning face a greater risk of becoming schizophrenic. The research team, led by Harvard associate professor of genetics Steven McCarroll and a graduate student Aswin Sekar, also isolated a variant of the C4 gene as the likely culprit.

The new findings align with previous studies that show people with schizophrenia have fewer neural connections as compared to people without the disorder. It also aligns with the fact that the disorder often starts in the teen or young adult years. However, Carroll pointed out that having the gene doesn’t guarantee that a person will develop schizophrenia. He estimated that it increases the risk by about 25 percent. The National Institute of Mental Health points out many other factors that might play in, including prenatal malnutrition, problems during birth, exposure to viruses, brain chemical imbalances, and psychosocial factors.

Studies Also Yield Clues to Treatment

Currently there is no cure for schizophrenia, which causes problems with thinking clearly and distinguishing between reality and hallucinations. People with this mental illness often have problems dealing with social situations and may have atypical emotional reactions. Symptoms include irritability, trouble sleeping, thoughts that jump around, visual and auditory hallucinations, and strong beliefs in delusions.

The disorder’s symptoms are typically treated with anti-psychotic medication or talk therapy. While medication is typically the predominant approach, a recent study found that counseling, combined with low doses of medication, was a very effective approach. The drugs used to treat schizophrenia often have severe side effects, so the holistic approach holds promise because it minimizes the need for meds.