News outlets including The New York Times and others around the world have been buzzing about a new scientific finding: Researchers have come up with a biological explanation—a genetic link—that brings science closer to pinpointing the cause of schizophrenia and it has to do with the spaces between brain cells.
Researchers at Harvard found that one of the versions of a gene, called C4, accelerates synaptic pruning, a natural process where nerve cells shed connections—or synapses—between other nerve cells. Typically, only extra connections are shed, but this gene variant ramps up the process, shedding connections that otherwise would remain intact. They found that patients with this C4 gene variant were at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia.
These researchers are not alone in their focus on brain cell communication and schizophrenia.
Dr. Sameer Sheth, neurosurgeon and Director of the Functional and Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory here at Columbia University Medical Center, is also working to solve the puzzle of schizophrenia from this angle and hoping to find a treatment.
Dr. Sheth focuses his research efforts on how circuits of nerve cells communicate within the brain. He believes that by understanding how these chains of nerve cells process information, we will become better equipped to treat schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.
In a recent study, Dr. Sheth and his colleagues compiled the available literature with a focus on the role that certain brain circuits play in schizophrenia. They did so in an effort to identify possible locations within the brain where the disease could be targeted with surgical therapies.
In the brain, waves of electrical impulses travel across nerve cells and are part of how nerve cells communicate with one another. However, in patients with schizophrenia some of these connections are altered and result in abnormal electrical impulses.
Dr. Sheth and colleagues have suggested a treatment technology to correct those altered electrical impulses: deep brain stimulation (DBS).
DBS is already used to treat conditions like Parkinson disease and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Deep brain stimulation involves surgically implanting tiny electrodes into the area of the brain where nerve cells are transmitting abnormal electrical signals. The tiny electrodes send their own electrical impulses to override the abnormal ones.
In their research, Dr. Sheth and his team found several regions in the brain’s circuitry that could be made targets for treatments with deep brain stimulation. Their research was published in the Journal of Neurosurgery this year.
They concluded that, though this kind of treatment needs further investigation, the early studies are promising. They also emphasize that these types of surgical therapies for schizophrenia are reserved for patients who do not benefit sufficiently from standard treatments, such as medications and behavioral therapy.
Image Credit: © SSilver/Dollar Photo Club
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