A new study by researchers at the Broad Institute's Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, Harvard Medical School, and Boston Children's Hospital genetically analyzed nearly 65,000 people and revealed that an individual’s risk of schizophrenia is increased if they inherited distinct variants in a gene related to "synaptic pruning"—the elimination of connections between neurons. This new data represents the first time that the origin of this psychiatric disease has been causally linked to particular gene variants and a biological process.
The investigators discovered that versions of a gene commonly thought to be involved in immune function might trigger a runaway pruning of an adolescent brain’s still-maturing communications infrastructure. The researchers described a scenario where patients with schizophrenia show fewer such connections between neurons or synapses.
"Normally, pruning gets rid of excess connections we no longer need, streamlining our brain for optimal performance, but too much pruning can impair mental function," explained Thomas Lehner, Ph.D., director of the Office of Genomics Research Coordination at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which co-funded the study along with the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and other NIH components. "It could help explain schizophrenia's delayed age-of-onset of symptoms in late adolescence and early adulthood and shrinkage of the brain's working tissue. Interventions that put the brakes on this pruning process-gone-awry could prove transformative."
The gene the research team called into question, dubbed C4 (complement component 4), was associated with the largest risk for the disorder. C4's role represents some of the most compelling evidence, to date, linking specific gene versions to a biological process that could cause at least some cases of the illness.
The findings from this study were published recently in Nature through an article entitled “Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4.”
"Since schizophrenia was first described over a century ago, its underlying biology has been a black box, in part because it has been virtually impossible to model the disorder in cells or animals," noted senior study author Steven McCarroll, Ph.D., director of genetics for the Stanley Center and an associate professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. "The human genome is providing a powerful new way into this disease. Understanding these genetic effects on risk is a way of prying open that block box, peering inside and starting to see actual biological mechanisms."
Dr. McCarroll and his colleagues found that a stretch of chromosome 6 encompassing several genes known to be involved in immune function emerged as the strongest signal associated with schizophrenia risk in genome-wide analyses. Yet conventional genetics failed to turn up any specific gene versions there that were linked to schizophrenia.
In order to uncover how the immune-related site confers risk for the mental disorder, the scientists mounted a search for cryptic genetic influences that might generate unconventional signals. C4, a gene with known roles in immunity, emerged as a prime suspect because it is unusually variable across individuals.
Upon further investigation into the complexities of how such structural variation relates to the gene's level of expression and how that, in turn, might link to schizophrenia, the team discovered structurally distinct versions that affect expression of two main forms of the gene within the brain. The more a version resulted in expression of one of the forms, called C4A, the more it was associated with schizophrenia. The greater number of copies an individual had of the suspect versions, the more C4 switched on and the higher their risk of developing schizophrenia. Furthermore, the C4 protein turned out to be most prevalent within the cellular machinery that supports connections between neurons.
"Once we had the genetic findings in front of us we started thinking about the possibility that complement molecules are excessively tagging synapses in the developing brain," remarked co-author Beth Stevens, Ph.D. a neuroscientist and assistant professor of neurology at Boston Children's Hospital and institute member at the Broad. "This discovery enriches our understanding of the complement system in brain development and disease, and we could not have made that leap without the genetics. We're far from having a treatment based on this, but it's exciting to think that one day we might be able to turn down the pruning process in some individuals and decrease their risk."
"This study marks a crucial turning point in the fight against mental illness. It changes the game," added acting NIMH director Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D. "Because the molecular origins of psychiatric diseases are little-understood, efforts by pharmaceutical companies to pursue new therapeutics are few and far between. This study changes the game. Thanks to this genetic breakthrough, we can finally see the potential for clinical tests, early detection, new treatments, and even prevention."