Breakthrough in the understanding of schizophrenia

The biggest study into the genetics of schizophrenia has revealed a hitherto unknown similarity between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, a discovery which could lead to new treatments for both illnesses.

The finding, which has already been hailed as a milestone in the understanding of both conditions, springs from the shared analysis of three research teams: the International Schizophrenia Consortium, the Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia Consortium and SGENE.

Before the trio’s research doctors thought that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were clinically distinct. However the shared analysis shows that both conditions have a common genetic basis that leads people to develop one or other of the two illnesses.

The findings, which were published in the journal Nature, also suggest that schizophrenia is much more complex than previously thought and can arise not only from rare genetic variants but common ones as well.

Commenting on the findings Michael O’ Donovan, Professor of Psychiatric Genetics at the Medical Research Council’s neurogenetics centre in Cardiff told The Independent newspaper: “This is a pretty major breakthrough because before today you could count on the thumb of one hand the number of common [genetic] variants that have been reliably identified for schizophrenia.”

In total the researchers identified approximately 30,000 tiny genetic variants more common in people with schizophrenia. A similar pattern was found in people with bipolar disorder indicating a previously unrecognised overlap between the two conditions.

To compile their research the three teams analysed genetic data from 8,014 people with schizophrenia comparing them to samples from 19,090 people who did not have the condition.

However, while the research generated a lot of headlines this week a note of caution amidst the excitement was voiced by Professor David St Clair, chair of mental health at the University of Aberdeen.

While acknowledging that the findings are “a real scientific breakthrough” he said: “This is not a breakthrough that is going to change clinical practice any time soon. It will still be many years before the findings can be translated into new drug treatments. Much more work is also still required for us to piece together the overall genetic architecture of schizophrenia.”

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