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A Brain Protein Gone Awry Provides Schizophrenia Clue

The scientific leap from the wild hallucinations and delusions that mark schizophrenia to changes in the brain at the molecular level is a huge one.

Researchers who've been working to define the connection are pretty sure of one thing, though. There are lots of pathways that lead to schizophrenia, each one with many steps.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins have figured out something quite interesting about one of them. A tiny change to a single protein can make a big difference. It's "just one specific protein modification," psychiatrist Akira Sawa tells Shots of the discovery. The protein of interest is the product of a gene called DISC1(DISC for Disrupted in Schizophrenia) that's been associated with schizophrenia, mood disorders and autism. Timing of the change is everything, Sawa and his colleagues have determined.

It seems that early in brain development, the DISC1 protein spurs the growth of brain cells in the cerebral cortex. And then, something — just what is still being worked out — alters the protein slightly, and instead of making brain cells, the protein pushes those brain cells out to the part of the brain where they belong.

The researchers' experiments in mice have shown that the switchover is a key step in building a healthy brain. If the brain isn't built right, the person may be more prone to schizophrenia, and perhaps autism as well. The findings appear in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The mechanism behind schizophrenia seems kind of Rube Goldberg-ian: This lever controls that lever which controls that switch which may lead to schizophrenic behavior.

It's also kind of promising. Researchers might be able to work their new knowledge into a test to see if a person has the right form of the protein at the right time. And maybe, just maybe, if indeed the issue is timing, they can one day figure out a way to fix things.

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Joanne Silberner
Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.