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article imageArtificial neurons to study the genetic basis of mental illness

By Tim Sandle     Oct 17, 2018 in Science
To design new drugs to tackle psychiatric disorders requires an understanding of the biological and genetic causes of certain types of mental illnesses. To assist with this task, research have grown brain neurons.
The new research comes from the University of California Los Angeles. Here scientists have designed a method to study how genetics influence some psychiatric diseases. This has been achieved by growing brain cells in a laboratory. By studying these cells, the researchers hope to unpick why neurons are assigned specific roles. From this it should be seen how the expression of certain genes alter during neural development and, where these changes are non-ideal, they can lead to certain mental health issues occurring.
Earlier research has found that variations in four genetic regions are associated with five mental health disorders: autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. This is based on DNA analysis. Such findings indicate the additional genetic risk; other societal factors need to be taken into account.
The new neurobiological study focuses on schizophrenia. For years researchers have attempted to assess which genes contribute to the heritability and physiology of schizophrenia. This is challenging as so many different genes are involved. The new brain cell model assists with this process.
With the new research, focused on growing laboratory-based neurons, lead researcher Anil Ori told Laboratory Roots: Our approach allowed us to model how multiple regions in the genome that increase risk for psychiatric disorders act in concert to affect molecular and cellular function that is relevant for neurodevelopment.”
He adds: “This is exciting as it provides a novel framework to study genetic risk of psychiatric disease and shows that we can capture parts of the heritability of schizophrenia in a lab model system.”
For the study, the scientists were able to tack the expression of several genes during the development of human neural stem cells. Following this exercise, the researchers integrated genome-wide schizophrenic risk data with the gene expression profiles. They found that genes with differential expression and increased expression during development were linked to increased risk of developing schizophrenia.
The genes most responsible for the association with disease risk were involved in synaptic function--the means by which cells communicate and transmit signals through the brain. This insight, and the brain cell model, provide the basis for future research.
The research has been published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. The research paper is titled “A Longitudinal Model of Human Neuronal Differentiation for Functional Investigation of Schizophrenia Polygenic Risk.”
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