People have a lot of misconceptions about schizophrenia. The name alone triggers thoughts of multiple personalities or manic, bubbling madness. It doesn't help that so few people have the disorder (a mere .3 to .7 percent of people in their lifetime, or 24 million worldwide), that Hollywood likes to capitalize on those fallacies, or that so little is known scientifically about the disorder. The disorder by its very nature tends to limit social engagement and thus social awareness. There is no cure, and patients are left learning to cope, to try to thrive in a reality that thinks "crazy" is all just in their heads. Thankfully, a new discovery is beginning, proverbially, to put a finger on it.
A Hard Reality
The development of schizophrenia treatments has been slow, if not stuck, for some 60 years. Current focus has been on therapy (both physical and occupational), holistic and social support, and managing visual and auditory hallucinations with antipsychotics. The costs for managing schizophrenia are steep (tens of billions of dollars annually), and the side effects can be challenging, potentially resulting in cognitive deficits or memory loss, and loss of motivation.
Not all expressions of schizophrenia are the same either. Sometimes there is paranoia or a persecution complex, and sometimes there is mania or deep depression. Some patients experience a flat affect, or an extreme disability to express emotions, making them seem entirely apathetic.
All of this only makes schizophrenia that much harder to understand. That's without beginning to discuss the emotional toll this takes on friends and family.
A Worldwide Effort
An international consortium with researchers from 35 different countries studied the genetics of 140,000 people (30,000 with schizophrenia and 110,000 without) to pinpoint genomic factors contributing to schizophrenia. Before this study, only 25 genes were known to be connected. Now that number is 108. This follows work by the Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, which collected the genomic data and has been studying the broad spectrum genetics of schizophrenia since 2007.
The new study was published recently in Nature. What it represents for schizophrenia treatment and quality of life will be huge.
The results of this study could be immensely important to countering the concept of schizophrenia (and with it, a host of other mental and mood disorders) as having little or even no basis in hard biology. Even medical professionals have been resistant to the idea that schizophrenia could have a genetic basis. This persistent disregard for the disorder has likely contributed to undermining new research. If nothing else, this recent study represents a launching point for changing the social perception of and conversation about schizophrenia.
The Devil's in the Details
Perhaps it is due to the fact that the causes of schizophrenia are an individualized melding of environment and genetics that made these genomic markers so elusive. This study provides more of the specific biological processes involved, either in susceptibility or cause. For instance, patterns emerging from this data suggest there may be an autoimmune factor to the disorder, or that exposure to certain viruses early in childhood may increase overall susceptibility to the onset of the disorder. Several neurotransmitters may also be involved, especially glutamate and the production of dopamine.
The Onset of Hope
The changes won't be immediate, of course, but in beginning to find the sources of the disorder, doctors can begin to determine actual methods of action. That means developing specific drugs or other schizophrenia treatments designed to treat the actual disorder, instead of merely suppressing symptoms. Eventually, it may even be possible to determine what makes a person susceptible to schizophrenia and find therapies or medication to prevent onset.
Finding this data, and patterns of data, has been compared to finding a needle in a haystack. It might be more like finding a needle in a stack of needles. Yet researchers involved with the project are confident that the results will continue coming in. Some are hopeful that eventually more than a thousand genetic markers could be discovered as having a relationship to schizophrenia. But one thing has been repeated across the board: this is already an amazing jumping point for new treatment research.