Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Genetics researchers in Britain have identified 50 new gene regions that increase risk for schizophrenia, potentially paving the way for new treatment.
Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales found that some of the genes identified as increasing risk for schizophrenia have previously been associated with other neurodevelopmental disorders, including intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorders. The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Genetics.
Researchers also unexpectedly found that genes linked to schizophrenia risk are mostly crucial to normal development and typically do not contain harmful mutations. The findings will allow for a narrower search for the mechanisms of the disorder because these genes account for only around 15 percent of all the genes in the human genome.
"These findings are another important step on the long road to new treatments for schizophrenia and will be crucial for identifying potential new drugs, which will become an increasing focus of our work in the coming years," Sir Mike Owen, who leads the MRC Center for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University, said in a press release.
The study examined genetic data in 100,000 individuals, including 40,000 people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, in the largest research of its kind. The researchers identified 40 novel genetic markers and 145 in total.
"This large study provides further evidence of the complex genetics underlying schizophrenia," said Dr. Rachael Panizzo, program manager for mental health and addiction at the Medical Research Council. "Advances in our understanding of the biological pathways and mechanisms involved will help uncover new targets for treatment, which could one day translate into better, more personalized care for people living with schizophrenia."
Schizophrenia, a debilitating psychiatric condition often associated with poor quality of life and decreased life expectancy, affects less than 1 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The findings have solved a mystery with psychiatrists and evolutionary geneticists.
Why does schizophrenia affect so many people when on average they have fewer children than people without the disorder?
"Many of the genetic variants that confer risk to schizophrenia are relatively common in the population, and many scientists would have expected them to be selected against by natural selection, become rare and eventually disappear from the population," said Dr James Walters from Cardiff University
"Many theories have emerged to explain this. One of these is that genetic risk for schizophrenia must have, or have had in the past, a positive effect to balance against the negative ones."
As a result of the research, Owe said the MRC Center will be working with researchers in other fields for new approaches to treatment.