London - British scientists have made a major breakthrough that could one day help stop schizophrenia in its tracks.
Cardiff University researchers discovered that a gene known to be involved in the mental illness is active in newborns.
The “immense” finding raises the possibility that infants could be screened and treated to prevent the condition developing later on. It could also offer hope to those with bipolar disorder and depression.
Symptoms of panic, anger, depression, hallucinations and delusions can all take a heavy toll on schizophrenia sufferers and their families.
The latest discovery suggests that the seeds of the condition are sown in the first weeks of life – with knock-on consequences in later years. The Cardiff study centred on a gene called DISC-1, which is known to be involved in a range of mental illnesses including schizophrenia.
Experiments on young mice show it to be critical to the healthy development of the brain in the first few days of life. But faulty versions of the gene stop the adult brain forming coherent thoughts and the ability to properly perceive the world is impaired.
Importantly, although the gene can be detected in the first days of life, the effects are not felt until years later. The breakthrough, described in the journal Science, may shed light on why the debilitating condition normally does not strike until a person’s early 20s.
The discovery also paves the way for new drugs. Lead researcher, Professor Kevin Fox, said: “The potential of what we now know about this gene is immense. This, we hope, could one day help to prevent the manifestation or recurrence of schizophrenia symptoms altogether.”
Professor Jeremy Hall, director of Cardiff University’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute, said that the research “provides strong experimental evidence that subtle changes early on in life can lead to much bigger effects in adulthood”.
Further research on the DISC-1 gene could help scientists understand how other genes play a part in the risk of developing the mental condition. In their report, scientists called the discovery a “genetic Rosetta stone” – a master key that can help unlock further understanding of the role played by other markers.
However, mental health charities urged caution.
Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of SANE, said: “Despite the optimism of these findings, all the evidence to date suggests we are a long way away from a cure for schizophrenia. This study would need to be replicated and validated by research in humans.
“However, all work into the causes and treatments for schizophrenia should encourage us that we need not live with one of mankind’s worst afflictions for ever.”