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Identifying the genetic roots of schizophrenia

By Nadia Kounang, CNN
updated 11:52 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
The genes linked to schizophrenia are mainly associated with neural brain function and the immune system, a study says.
The genes linked to schizophrenia are mainly associated with neural brain function and the immune system, a study says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Researchers have linked schizophrenia to 108 spots in people's DNA
  • Previously only 30 such spots had been discovered
  • Understanding genetic roots of schizophrenia can help develop better treatment, experts say

(CNN) -- After analyzing the DNA of 150,000 people, scientists say they can pinpoint the genetic roots of schizophrenia.

In the largest study of its kind, a consortium of researchers from around the world linked the mental illness to 108 spots on people's DNA. Previously, scientists had only discovered 30 such locations. The study was published Monday in the journal Nature.

Schizophrenia is a debilitating disease that makes it difficult to separate reality from fantasy. Symptoms such as hearing voices and having delusions can begin as early as the teen years. However, schizophrenia is usually diagnosed in those over age 45.

Schizophrenia affects 1% of the population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, those with a first-degree relative -- such a mother or brother -- with the disease are 10 times as likely to get it.

It has long been thought that there is some sort of correlation between autoimmune diseases and schizophrenia, but scientists have now cemented a real genetic marker between the two. The genes linked in this study with schizophrenia were mainly associated with neural brain function and the immune system.

Jordan Smaller, co-author of the study, said having an understanding of the genetic makeup of the disease can help better target therapies for the disease.

"The wealth of new findings have the potential to kick-start the development of new treatments in schizophrenia, a process which has stalled for the last 60 years," study author Michael O'Donovan said in a statement from the Broad Institute, one of the institutes involved in the research.

In fact, there haven't been any real developments in treatment for schizophrenia since dopamine receptors were first targeted in the early 1950s.

Smaller said that while there is indeed an association between the genetic markers and the disease, he was careful to point out that the relationship is "not at a level that could be used as a diagnostic test."

In conjunction with the study, the Broad Institute announced a $650 million grant from Connecticut businessman Ted Stanley. The gift, geared toward research and treatment for psychiatric disorders, is the largest grant for psychiatric research in known history.

Stanley's commitment to mental illness research has been lifelong -- inspired by his son, Jonathan, who suffered from bipolar disorder and psychosis in college. Jonathan was able to get treatment with lithium and today is an attorney in Florida.

In 1989, Stanley and his wife, Vada, founded the Stanley Medical Research Institute aimed at finding treatment for mental illness. As Jonathan Stanley once said, "Mental illness had picked a fight with the wrong man."

Between the grant and the research, many say it could be a new era for mental illness.

"The fact that we were able to detect genetic risk factors on this massive scale shows that schizophrenia can be tackled by the same approaches that have already transformed our understanding of other diseases," O'Donovan said.

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