Health Watch -- Is There a Schizophrenia Gene?

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Researchers may have found a genetic link to schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness affecting more than two million Americans. The illness may cause delusions, hallucinations, disordered thinking and social withdrawal. Most people with schizophrenia suffer throughout their lives, either constantly or in recurring episodes. About 10 percent of people with schizophrenia end up committing suicide.

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas may have found evidence of a genetic link to schizophrenia by observing mice with specific gene mutations. Mice with these mutations show many of the same behaviors seen in people with schizophrenia. The affected mice don't interact normally with other mice. Instead, they dart around wildly and avoid contact. They also don't have a normal startle response. An abnormal startle response is one symptom of schizophrenia in humans. The affected mice have lower levels of the same brain protein that is found in lower levels in humans with schizophrenia.

Dr. Steven McKnight, UT Southwestern's chairman of biochemistry, says it's too early to tell if the behavior seen in these mice can be directly correlated to any human disease. He notes, however, that there is a family in Canada whose members with a known mutation in the human equivalent of the same gene that is reported to suffer from schizophrenia.

More research will be needed to find out if these genes are a direct link to schizophrenia or if they're entirely unrelated.

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Sept. 2004

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