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Genetic mapping creates new hope regarding schizophrenia

Over 100 spots in our DNA have been linked by scientists to the risk of developing schizophrenia, shedding light on the mystery of what makes the disease tick. This work could one day point to new treatments, although they are many years away. Even so, the new results provide the first hard genetic evidence to bolster a theory connecting the disease to the immune system.

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More than 100 researchers from around the world collaborated in the largest-ever genomic mapping of schizophrenia, for which scientists had previously only uncovered a little over two dozen risk-related genes.

The study included the genetic codes of more than 150,000 people, with almost 37,000 of them having the disease. Researchers found 108 genetic markers for risk of getting the disease, 83 of which had not previously been reported. Scientists believe even more will be found.

“It’s a genetic revelation; schizophrenia has been a mystery,” said study co-author Steve McCarroll, director of genetics for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “Results like this give you things to work on. It takes it out of the zone of guesses about which genes are relevant.”

Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental disorder that makes it hard to tell the difference between what is real and not real. It affects about one out of every 100 people. Studies estimate it costs $60 billion in the U.S. every year. Scientists have long known genes play a part, and this study further confirms that.

The results are a “big step” toward finding drug therapies, said study lead author Dr. Michael O’Donovan, deputy director of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University School of Medicine in Wales. While 108 genetic makers are a lot, study authors say they implicate a narrower group of biological functions, giving some but not too many hints for scientists to pursue.

Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the work, said the study provides useful hints about the biology of the disease, especially the link to the immune system.

With the new work, “now it’s very clear that there’s something going in the immune system” with schizophrenia, said Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute, which was heavily involved in the research.

The lights are now on and scientists can at least see where they are going in their battle to provide early treatment for schizophrenia.