If you don’t know what’s causing a problem it’s hard to come up with a good way to fix it. Mental health is the perfect example. With a physical illness you can see what the problem is, through blood tests or x-rays, and develop a plan to tackle it. But with the brain, that’s a lot harder. You can’t autopsy a brain while someone is alive, they tend to object, so you often only see the results of a neurological illness when they’re dead.
And, says Consuelo Walss-Bass, PhD, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), with mental illness it’s even more complicated.
“Mental health research has lagged behind because we don’t know what is happening biologically. We are diagnosing people based on what they are telling us. Even postmortem, the brain tissue in mental health disorders looks perfectly fine. In Alzheimer’s disease, you can see a difference compared to controls. But not in psychiatric disorders.”
So Wals-Bass and her team came up with a way to see what was going on inside the brain of someone with schizophrenia, in real time, to try and understand what puts someone at increased risk of the disorder.
In the study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the researchers took blood samples from a family with a high incidence of schizophrenia. Then, using the iPSC method, they turned those cells into brain neurons and compared them to the neurons of individuals with no family history of schizophrenia. In effect, they did a virtual brain biopsy.
By doing this they were able to identify five genes that had previously been linked to a potential higher risk of schizophrenia and then narrow that down further, highlighting one gene called SGK1 which blocked an important signalling pathway in the brain.
In a news release, Walss-Bass says this findings could have important implications in treating patients.
“There is a new antipsychotic that just received approval from the Food and Drug Administration that directly targets the pathway we identified as dysregulated in neurons from the patients, and several other antipsychotics also target this pathway. This could help pinpoint who may respond better to treatments.”
Finding the right treatment for individual patients is essential in helping them keep their condition under control. A study in the medical journal Lancet estimated that six months after first being prescribed common antipsychotic medication, as many as 50% of patients are either taking the drugs haphazardly or not at all. That’s because they often come with unpleasant side effects such as weight gain, drowsiness and a kind of restless anxiety.
By identifying people who have specific gene pathways linked to schizophrenia could help us better tailor medications to those who will benefit most by them.