New research by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has uncovered fundamental differences in early neurons of patients with schizophrenia, supporting the theory that risk for the disease may begin in the womb.

Using new stem cell technology, scientists at Salk have shown that neurons generated from the skin cells of people with schizophrenia behave strangely in early developmental stages, providing a hint as to ways to detect and potentially treat the disease early.

Image shows the movement of neural progenitor cells from a sphere of neurons. How far and quickly the neurons move indicates whether they may behave atypically in the brain. Image courtesy of the Salk Institute

The findings of the study, published online in April’s Molecular Psychiatry, support the theory that the neurological dysfunction that eventually causes schizophrenia may begin in the brains of babies still in the womb.

“This study aims to investigate the earliest detectable changes in the brain that lead to schizophrenia,” said Fred H. Gage, Salk professor of genetics. “We were surprised at how early in the developmental process that defects in neural function could be detected.”

Currently, over 1.1 percent of the world’s population has schizophrenia, with an estimated three million cases in the United States alone. The economic cost is high: in 2002, Americans spent nearly $63 billion on treatment and managing disability.

The emotional cost is higher still: 10 percent of those with schizophrenia are driven to commit suicide by the burden of coping with the disease.

Although schizophrenia is a devastating disease, scientists still know very little about its underlying causes, and it is still unknown which cells in the brain are affected and how. Previously, scientists had only been able to study schizophrenia by examining the brains of patients after death, but age, stress, medication or drug abuse had often altered or damaged the brains of these patients, making it difficult to pinpoint the disease’s origins.

The Salk scientists were able to avoid this hurdle by using stem cell technologies. They took skin cells from patients, coaxed the cells to revert back to an earlier stem cell form and then prompted them to grow into very early-stage neurons, or neural progenitor cells. These cells are similar to the cells in the brain of a developing fetus.

— From a Salk Institute press release

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.

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