Aberdeen University scientists have discovered that a gene formerly associated with high blood pressure could increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders such as schozophrenia when it is defective.
The team were able to ‘switch off’ the ULK4 gene in the cells of a mouse brain, where these cells went on to produce others which appeared in the wrong places and communicated less with neighbouring nerve cells.
When the gene was ‘switched on’ these problems disappeared, prompting researchers to conclude that UKL4 plays an important role in brain development.
It follows a previous study from Aberdeen that identified a mutation of the gene was found far more frequently in patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and autism than patients without these conditions.
Dr Bing Lang, lead author of the paper published today in the Scientific Reports journal, said: “Schizophrenia and other mental health disorders are multi-faceted and it is extremely complicated to identify which genes, in combination with other environmental factors, contribute to people developing the condition.
“This latest study supports our highly novel findings that the ULK4 gene plays a role in normal brain development, and that a mutation in the gene contributes to the risk of several neurodevelopmental disorders.
“We hope that by fully understanding the roles of ULK4 in schizophrenia, this will pave the way for the development of new drugs to treat this devastating condition.”
Schizophrenia is among the top 10 causes of human disability worldwide but the causes are still not fully understood.
A mixture of genetic and environmental factors are thought to contribute to the overall risk, while the chances of inheriting the condition range from 60 to 80 per cent.
However controversy remains over which genes are responsible for causing the condition.
Identifying these genes could pave the way for the development of treatments, experts believe.