Tag Archives: Genetics of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia research, the good news and the bad news

If you are an identical twin whose twin is schizophrenic, your chances of getting schizophrenia is 40%, if you are just a fraternal twin your chance is 15%, amazingly much higher than the 1% chance the rest of us  have, because that’s the incidence in the general population. For what schizophrenia is really like see the old post after the *** at the end

So to find out what causes schizophrenia, study the genes of schizophrenics and compare them to those without it.     [ Neuron vol. 103 pp. 203 – 216 ’19 ] First off —  the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC) has identified well over 100 (genomic loci) loci with a significant genome-wide association with risk for schizophrenia.  This means that unlike cystic fibrosis (where over 1,700 disease associated mutations have been found in the causative gene),and despite the genetics schizophrenia is not going to be due to one gene.

The good news is that serious money and attention to the genomes of schizophrenics is being paid.The paper reports the latest results from the horribly named BrainSeq.  This is a precompetitive initiative launched by the Liber Institute for Brain Development (LIBD) with heavy big pharma involvement (Eli Lilly, Johnson and Johnson, Hoffman-LaRoche, AstraZenica).    The LIBD has over 1,900 human  postmortem neuropsychiatric disease and control samples.   They are mapping all sorts of genetic information (DNA sequences, RNA sequencing, DNA epigenetics (cytosine methylation) etc. etc.)

The bad news is what this research is telling us.  The paper looked in differences in messenger RNA (mRNA) levels in two areas of the brain in 286 schizophrenics and 265 normal controls.  mRNA levels are a marker for gene expression, levels of the proteins coded for by the mRNA would be better, but is presently beyond our technology (when you are looking at the whole genome, as they were).

Well, out of our 20,000 or so protein coding genes, they found 48 differently expressed (by schizophrenics compared to normals) in one area (the hippocampus) and 245 in another (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).  That’s not a big deal, the two areas of the brain have rather different neurons and organization.

The bad news is there was almost no overlap between the 48 and the 245.  So although schizophrenics express their genome differently than normals, the expression varies in brain areas.  It would be great if there was some overlap, so then the genes differentiating schizophrenics from normal could be intensively studied.

The work also casts a shadow over a lot of earlier work, in which gene expression in schizophrenic brain was studied either in one area (or in ground up whole brain), and the results were assumed to be applicable to the brain as a whole.  They aren’t.  Back to the drawing board.


What is schizophrenia really like ?

The recent tragic death of John Nash and his wife warrants reposting the following written 11 October 2009

“I feel that writing to you there I am writing to the source of a ray of light from within a pit of semi-darkness. It is a strange place where you live, where administration is heaped upon administration, and all tremble with fear or abhorrence (in spite of pious phrases) at symptoms of actual non-local thinking. Up the river, slightly better, but still very strange in a certain area with which we are both familiar. And yet, to see this strangeness, the viewer must be strange.”

“I observed the local Romans show a considerable interest in getting into telephone booths and talking on the telephone and one of their favorite words was pronto. So it’s like ping-pong, pinging back again the bell pinged to me.”

Could you paraphrase this? Neither can I, and when, as a neurologist I had occasion to see schizophrenics, the only way to capture their speech was to transcribe it verbatim. It can’t be paraphrased, because it makes no sense, even though it’s reasonably gramatical.

What is a neurologist doing seeing schizophrenics? That’s for shrinks isn’t it? Sometimes in the early stages, the symptoms suggest something neurological. Epilepsy for example. One lady with funny spells was sent to me with her husband. Family history is important in just about all neurological disorders, particularly epilepsy. I asked if anyone in her family had epilepsy. She thought her nephew might have it. Her husband looked puzzled and asked her why. She said she thought so because they had the same birthday.

It’s time for a little history. The board which certifies neurologists, is called the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. This is not an accident as the two fields are joined at the hip. Freud himself started out as a neurologist, wrote papers on cerebral palsy, and studied with a great neurologist of the time, Charcot at la Salpetriere in Paris. 6 months of my 3 year residency were spent in Psychiatry, just as psychiatrists spend time learning neurology (and are tested on it when they take their Boards).

Once a month, a psychiatrist friend and I would go to lunch, discussing cases that were neither psychiatric nor neurologic but a mixture of both. We never lacked for new material.

Mental illness is scary as hell. Society deals with it the same way that kids deal with their fears, by romanticizing it, making it somehow more human and less horrible in the process. My kids were always talking about good monsters and bad monsters when they were little. Look at Sesame street. There are some fairly horrible looking characters on it which turn out actually to be pretty nice. Adults have books like “One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest” etc. etc.

The first quote above is from a letter John Nash wrote to Norbert Weiner in 1959. All this, and much much more, can be found in “A Beatiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar. It is absolutely the best description of schizophrenia I’ve ever come across. No, I haven’t seen the movie, but there’s no way it can be more accurate than the book.

Unfortunately, the book is about a mathematician, which immediately turns off 95% of the populace. But that is exactly its strength. Nash became ill much later than most schizophrenics — around 30 when he had already done great work. So people saved what he wrote, and could describe what went on decades later. Even better, the mathematicians had no theoretical axe to grind (Freudian or otherwise). So there’s no ego, id, superego or penis envy in the book, just page after page of description from well over 100 people interviewed for the book, who just talked about what they saw. The description of Nash at his sickest covers 120 pages or so in the middle of the book. It’s extremely depressing reading, but you’ll never find a better description of what schizophrenia is actually like — e.g. (p. 242) She recalled that “he kept shifting from station to station. We thought he was just being pesky. But he thought that they were broadcasting messages to him. The things he did were mad, but we didn’t really know it.”

Because of his previous mathematical achievments, people saved what he wrote — the second quote above being from a letter written in 1971 and kept by the recipient for decades, the first quote from a letter written in 12 years before that.

There are a few heartening aspects of the book. His wife Alicia is a true saint, and stood by him and tried to help as best she could. The mathematicians also come off very well, in their attempts to shelter him and to get him treatment (they even took up a collection for this at one point).

I was also very pleased to see rather sympathetic portraits of the docs who took care of him. No 20/20 hindsight is to be found. They are described as doing the best for him that they could given the limited knowledge (and therapies) of the time. This is the way medicine has been and always will be practiced — we never really know enough about the diseases we’re treating, and the therapies are almost never optimal. We just try to do our best with what we know and what we have.

I actually ran into Nash shortly after the book came out. The Princeton University Store had a fabulous collection of math books back then — several hundred at least, most of them over $50, so it was a great place to browse, which I did whenever I was in the area. Afterwards, I stopped in a coffee shop in Nassau Square and there he was, carrying a large disheveled bunch of papers with what appeared to be scribbling on them. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him. He had the eyes of a hunted animal.