Scientists at Scripps Research Institute have recently found that schizophrenia is not a genetic disorder at all. In fact, it’s an epigenetic disorder, one cause by the structures of the cell that house our DNA. Particular to disorders like schizophrenia, there is a protein that functions a bit like a storage rack in the cell called a histone. The DNA, which would not otherwise fit within a single cell, is wrapped around the histone. However, in order for the DNA to express itself the histone has a tail which undergoes a perpetual chemical reaction called acetylation, which relaxes the DNA and allows it to express. Then acetylation takes place and the DNA once again contracts around the histone. The histones and DNA create chromatin, which manages the constant cycle of relaxation and contraction that allows all the genes of a cell to functions properly.
If the histone does not acetylate, or create the chromatin that allows the DNA to relax and express itself normally, then parts of the DNA that are too tightly wound around the histone will simply shut off. If this happens the cell could undergo considerable damage. If it happens widely enough, the rest of the body could suffer. This is essentially what happens in schizeophrenia patients. Acetylation stops or is hindered in large parts of the brain, and the DNA expression is turned off, throwing everything else into disarray. Other epigenetic disorders of this kind in the brain have given rise to Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and drug addiction.
The researcher’s at Scrips are looking at evidence from schizophrenic and healthy individuals to locate where the chemical breakdown is occurring, and to look at ways of repairing it. What they have found so far is that these types of epigenetic disorders have much more pronounced effects in younger brains than they did in older ones, which allows researchers to target their studies. Focusing on this particular chemical malfunction in the brain may allow scientists to create much more effective drugs to treat schizophrenia, even reversing its effects. This would be a boon to many schizophrenia patients, many of whom are taking medications that have serious side effects and only treat a handful of the disease’s symptoms.