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Test developed for schizophrenia

15th May 2012

Researchers in the United States say they have developed a test which might be used to predict a person's risk for schizophrenia.

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Using a new approach to identify the full set of genes responsible for this complex mental illness, scientists now believe they have broken the genetic code for the disorder, which is currently thought to run in families.

According to study co-author and medical neuroscience associate professor Alexander  Niculescu, the research team has successfully identified the most comprehensive and best list of genes linked to schizophrenia so far.

Their findings suggest that schizophrenia is a disease that occurs as a result of an amalgam of genetic variations which code for brain development and connections, along with a person's stress levels and their environment.

According to figures compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health, around 1% of Americans have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a chronic mental health condition that can include paranoid ideation, hallucinatory experiences and a lack of ability to organise one's thoughts.

The medications that are currently offered can address some of the symptoms, including hallucinations, but their unpleasant side-effects lead some patients to refuse them.

Niculescu said the research team wanted to investigate more thoroughly which genes were implicated in schizophrenia, to build on previous studies which had so far supplied only variable and inconclusive evidence.

Compiling their results from genome-wide association studies, independent studies, and other sources, the researchers tested their list of genes in four different groups of people.

They developed a test which could accurately identify a person with schizophrenia in two out of three cases. However, Niculescu warned that the test was still in its infancy, although it might be taken up and developed commercially in the next five years.

Diagnosticians would find the test particularly useful for the children of high-risk families where at least one relative already had a diagnosis.

Children scoring more highly on the test could be monitored more closely by professionals and could receive earlier treatment, leading to better outcomes, Niculescu said.

However, he said that a person's genes were not their whole destiny, and the test only set out to predict genetic risk, not foretell how a child would develop over their lifetime. People who scored highly on the test might simply have differently wired brains from most people.

The involvement of other genes and environmental factors could mean the difference between a schizophrenic person and a creative one, as many of the genes implicated in schizophrenia have also been linked to other mental disorders, including bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders.

The overlap between the genetic underpinnings of the various mental health labels could shift the focus of care away from diagnosis and onto the treatment of symptoms, possibly also reducing the stigma attached to certain diagnostic labels.

Stephen Marder, professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute of the University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine, who reviewed the team's findings, said the research had served to simplify what was a very confusing area of study.

He said the information had been integrated from very large genetic studies on schizophrenia and other disorders, and a pattern derived from it.

He said researchers might now focus less on specific abnormal genes and more on how a person's genes influenced their brain development to make them more likely to develop schizophrenia.


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