Duke University scientists may have found a trio of keys that will unlock the mystery of schizophrenia.
The researchers linked together three possible causes of the chronic mental health condition that they were uncertain were connected.
The results of their study were published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The hope is that the discoveries will lead to new treatments for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
The Duke researchers studied mice that had a gene removed from the cells in the front of their brains. The gene, Arp2/3, helps control the formation of links between brain cells called neurons and is associated with multiple psychiatric disorders.
Researchers said they were surprised when the mice without Arp2/3 started showing behaviors similar to schizophrenia in people. The mice’s behavior worsened over time, just like it does in humans.
The scientists found three brain abnormalities in the mice that also appear in people with schizophrenia.
One was a reduction in the frontal brain regions of dendritic spines. These are tentacles on neurons that process signals from other cells.
The second characteristic was hyperactive neurons in the front of the brain. Researchers said they didn’t think brains with fewer dendritic spines could also have overactive neurons. However, the scientists said the neurons were rewired to bypass the dendritic spines causing them to increase their activity.
The third characteristic was elevated levels of the brain chemical dopamine. The researchers theorized the hyperactive neurons were stimulating other neurons to release the chemical, which can cause motor agitation in the brain.
“The most exciting part was when all the pieces of the puzzle fell together,” said study author Scott Soderling, Ph.D., an associate professor of cell biology and neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine. “We’re very excited about using this type of approach, where we can genetically rescue Arp2/3 function in different brain regions and normalize behaviors.”
The researchers reported the mice’s brain function and behavior improved when they were given antipsychotic medication.
The study results were published one week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first generic versions of Abilify (aripiprazole). That medication is used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
FDA officials said it’s important to have less expensive, generic brands of antipsychotic drugs available for patients with mental illnesses.
FDA officials describe schizophrenia as a “chronic, severe and disabling brain disorder.” People with the illness are generally suspicious or withdrawn. Many times, these patients report hearing voices or believe other people are reading their minds or controlling their thoughts.
About 1 percent of people in the United States have schizophrenia. Symptoms usually start to appear before the age of 30.
The Duke University study was published during the first week of national Mental Health Month.