Health Scan: Genetics of schizophrenia

Unique genetic defects detected in schizophrenic individuals.

genetics 88 (photo credit: )
genetics 88
(photo credit: )
About one percent of the world population suffer from schizophrenia, the neurodevelopmental ailment characterized by disordered thinking and behavior. Although most patients have no family history of the disease, researchers have known that genetic background is important, and that schizophrenia can also result - starting in childhood and adolescence - from environmental triggers such as infections or the mother's poor nutrition during pregnancy. Parents, especially mothers, were in the past blamed for causing schizophrenia in their children. The fact that schizophrenics are likely to have few children has worked against considering genetic transmission. Now, a team of US scientists headed by Dr. Jonathan Sebat at Cold Spring Harbor in New York, the US National Institute of Mental Health and other leading institutions have found that schizophrenics are three to four times as likely as healthy people to bear large gene mutations that control brain development, but many of those genetic errors are unique to each patient, often formed spontaneously either at conception or in the fetus when a parent has a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia. The study, just published in Science, is based on 150 schizophrenic patients in Washington state, 120 of them adult inpatients and the rest teenagers suffering from early-onset schizophrenia spectrum disorders who were mostly outpatients, as well as a control group of 268 people. Among the leading researchers is Prof. Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington in Seattle, who is a frequent visitor to Israel. She was awarded the Weizmann Institute's Women & Science Award two years ago, and will soon receive an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University. Their discoveries - which suggest that many schizophrenics have a unique genetic makeup linked to their disorder - will require a reassessment of the most accepted model of how genes and the environment join to trigger schizophrenia. The good news is that the various gene mutations for schizophrenia can be identified by screening, so that eventually psychiatrists will be able to select the drugs that will be most effective in treating individual patients. The researchers also found definite similarities and connections between schizophrenia and autism. THE 'PILL' EASES FERTILITY TREATMENT The contraceptive pill can also improve the chances of infertile women conceiving with IVF, according to research by a Tel Aviv University physician. Dr. Haim Pinkus and colleagues found that a two-week course of standard low-dose birth control pills can help in timing the harvesting of eggs and make in-vitro fertilization easier and less stressful. One of the main difficulties in treating infertility is timing a woman's body to the clinic's schedule so that as many mature eggs as possible can be harvested. As IVF clinics can be pressed for time, said Pinkus, this safe and reliable method is very helpful. The study, published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction & Genetics, included 1,800 women, making it the largest of its kind. It also was the first to assess the impact of a patient's menstrual cycle, ovarian response and age on the final outcome. SPEEDY NURSING DEGREE Safed's Ziv Hospital has opened an additional class in its nursing school to help the country cope with a growing shortage of registered nurses. Nava Zigel-Cohen, the dean, called on the government to raise nurses' salaries and make the profession more attractive. The Ziv Hospital nursing school will produce registered nurses in 2.5 years and give them a nursing diploma (instead of a three-year academic degree in nursing). This is a reversal of the trend to encourage all nursing students to get a degree. The Health Ministry has allowed several nursing schools around the country to open similar short programs to help cope with the lack of hospital nurses. Only 300 female and male students graduate each year, and there are only 5.81 nurses per 1,000 residents.