Major psychiatric conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia seem to have more in common than previously thought, a new study suggests.
These disorders have important similarities on a molecular level, and understanding this is significant in finding more efficient treatments for them, NPR reports.
All of these are diagnosed by how a patient behaves, or external manifestations. There are no definite signs on a brain “that you can see with your eyes or most microscopic techniques,” according to Dan Geschwind, a neurogenetics professor at the University of California. This is different from other brain problems like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, where there are physical changes in the brain that doctors can see and rightly diagnose.
However, recent advances in genetics have enabled scientists to isolate the patterns of gene expressions in the brain that are directly linked to these specific psychiatric disorders.
Researchers conducted a large-scale study, measuring RNA in 700 tissue samples from patients diagnosed with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression and alcoholism. They compared these to brain tissue samples from people without these disorders, as RNA can identify which genes turn on and off in the brain tissue.
With these new genomic molecular measurements, we’re actually able to understand what is shared and what is distinct.
The study found that the way genes express themselves in patients suffering from autism, schizophrenia and bipolar appear to have many commonalities. These include fewer genes signaling between neurons, and more genes linked to neuroinflammatory cells.
Major depression showed very distinct patterns, while alcoholism “didn’t overlap with any of them at all.”
Understanding these molecular patterns can help with finding a cure for them in the future. “It gives us hope that perhaps we can use these signatures or hallmarks of the disorder to screen for drugs that can reverse them. And we can test whether those drugs actually work on the symptoms in patients,” Geschwind says. “It’s possible that some of these changes might eventually show themselves in the blood or we might be able to develop new, noninvasive techniques for measuring gene expression in living patients down the road.”
The study was published in the journal Science.