A novel rare risk factor linked to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia has been identified by a multi-institutional team led by Professor Sanbing Shen of the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI ) at NUI Galway.
Schizophrenia is a disorder for which, although many genetic risk factors have been identified, no effective treatment is available. Professor Shen and his colleagues have identified for the first time that changes in a little known gene called ULK4 were observed in individuals with schizophrenia.
Unlike many other genetic studies, Shen and his colleagues have also characterised how ULK4 functions in the brain. When levels of ULK4 are decreased, neuronal (brain ) cells tend to function less well, leading to reduced synaptic function and other changes which are also known as risk factors of schizophrenia.
The scientists were also able to show that ULK4 is essential for the formation of the nerve fibres which connect the two sides of our brains. The research not only demonstrates that ULK4 dysregulation is a risk factor for schizophrenia, but also that ULK4 plays an essential role in proper brain formation.
The findings published last week in the Journal of Cell Science were supported by genetic data provided by the International Schizophrenia Consortium, and confirmed using new data generated from other mental illness groups including autism, major depression, and bipolar disorder.
Follow up studies already under way in NUI Galway will lead to a better understanding of the disease and how drugs may be developed to target ULK4 for the treatment of mental illness.
The research was funded by Science Foundation Ireland, NUI Galway, Cunningham Trust, Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance, Medical Research Scotland, and the University of Aberdeen.