Researchers find evidence of a genetic 'barcode blocker' in those affected by schizophrenia

Written on 03/24/2021

By Ciarán Mather

A study examining the genetic makeup of those affected by schizophrenia has discovered the presence of a gene that acts as a 'barcode blocker' in those affected by the condition.

Volunteers were all members of the Ashkenazi Jewish community, and were selected because of their unique genetic background.

The research team with Columbia University meticulously studied a single letter change in the DNA code; in particular, a gene called PCDHA3, which is associated with schizophrenia.

As explained by Net 'The affected gene makes a type of protein called a protocadherin, which generates a cell surface “barcode” required for neurons to recognize, and communicate with, other neurons.'

In addition, the research team found that the PCDHA3 gene variant blocks this normal protocadherin function.

The head of the study, Dr. Todd Lencz, who is also a Professor at the Institute of Behavioural Science and Feinstein Institutes, explained: 'In addition to our primary findings regarding PCDHA3 and related genes, we were able– due to the unique characteristics of the Ashkenazi population – to replicate several prior findings in schizophrenia despite relatively small sample sizes.' 

'In our study, we demonstrated this population represents a smart, cost-effective strategy for identifying disease-related genes.' 

'Our findings allow us to zero in on a novel aspect of brain development and function in our quest to develop new treatments for schizophrenia,' he added.

The team further outlined that their reason behind selecting this specific ethnic group for the study is because its members are descended from just a few hundred individuals who migrated to Eastern Europe less than 1,000 years ago.

As there has been a long-standing tradition of marriage within the community, this has resulted in a mostly unvarying genetic background, which can better aid scientists in identifying disease-related variants.

Kevin J. Tracey, MD, President and CEO of Feinstein Institutes, has praised the discovery, saying: 'Dr. Lencz’s research into the role of genetics in schizophrenia offers a major advance.' 

'This work may open new avenues to developing therapeutics, which are sorely needed,' he added.

Columbia University's genetic study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, as well as by grants from the Brain & Behaviour Foundation and the Binational Science Foundation.

The results of the study have since been published in the scientific journal Neuron.

In related news, last year, tech giant IBM announced that it joined a $99 million five-year research plan to aid in the early detection of schizophrenia.

If you have been affected by any issues raised in this article, you can ring Samaritans on 116 123 or click here for information from Mental Health Ireland about resources to help you.