Brain Cell Types Common To Schizophrenia Gene Variants Identified

The brain cell types underlying schizophrenia have been identified in a new study from scientists at Karolinska Institutet and University of North Carolina. The findings could offer a guide for the development of new therapies to target the condition.

Genetic studies have linked hundreds of genes to schizophrenia, each contributing a small part to the risk of developing the disease. The great abundance of identified genes have made it difficult to design experiments.

Scientists have been struggling to understand what is linking the genes together and whether these genes affect the entire brain diffusely or certain components more.

More Precise Experimental Modeling

By combining new maps of all the genes used in different cell types in the brain with detailed lists of the genes associated with schizophrenia, scientists in the current study could identify the types of cells that underlie the disorder.

The genetics point towards certain cell types being much more implicated than others. These include pyramidal cells, medium spiny neurons (MSNs) and certain interneurons.

One finding was that there appears to be a few major cell types contributing to the disorder, each of which originates in distinct areas of the brain.

“This marks a transition in how we can use large genetic studies to understand the biology of disease. With the results from this study, we are giving the scientific community a chance to focus their efforts where it will give maximum effect”,

said Jens Hjerling-Leffler, research group leader at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics at Karolinska Institutet, one of the main authors.

Therapy Development Roadmap

The findings offer a roadmap for the development of new therapies.

“One question now is whether these brain cell types are related to the clinical features of schizophrenia. For example, greater dysfunction in one cell type could make treatment response less likely. Dysfunction in a different cell type could increase the chances of long-term cognitive effects. This would have important implications for development of new treatments, as separate drugs may be required for each cell type involved,”

said co-main author Patrick Sullivan, Professor at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Karolinska Institutet and Yeargan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Genetics and Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.

Due to rapid progress in two separate fields of science; human genetics and single cell transcriptomics, it only recently has become possible to study diseases in this way. In coming years the researchers suggest that the approach should lead to breakthroughs in the biological understanding of other complex disorders such as autism, major depression, and eating disorders.

The study was supported by the Swedish Research Council, StratNeuro, the Wellcome Trust, the Swedish Brain Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Nathan G. Skene, Julien Bryois, Trygve E. Bakken, Gerome Breen, James J. Crowley, Héléna A. Gaspar, Paola Giusti-Rodriguez, Rebecca D. Hodge, Jeremy A. Miller, Ana B. Muñoz-Manchado, Michael C. O’Donovan, Michael J. Owen, Antonio F. Pardiñas, Jesper Ryge, James T. R. Walters, Sten Linnarsson, Ed S. Lein, Major Depressive Disorder Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, Patrick F. Sullivan & Jens Hjerling-Leffler
Genetic identification of brain cell types underlying schizophrenia
Nature Genetics (2018) doi:10.1038/s41588-018-0129-5

Image: Prof. M. Hausser / UCL. CC BY-NC