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£1 million to investigate epigenetic factors in schizophrenia

Posted on 20/03/2013
DNA

Scientists at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry and University of Exeter Medical School will investigate the role of epigenetic processes in schizophrenia. 

The £1 million research project could pave the way for revolutionary new treatments.

Professor Jonathan Mill, at King's Institute of Psychiatry and University of Exeter Medical School, will use the grant from the Medical Research Council for a three year study which could shed fresh light on the triggers for the disease.

Schizophrenia is a long-term mental health condition which can include a range of psychological symptoms, including hallucinations, delusions, muddled thought or changes in behaviour. One in 100 people experience schizophrenia in their lifetime, with many continuing to live normal lives.

Prof Mill said: “This project will look at how nature and nurture interact to cause schizophrenia, which can have a serious impact on people’s lives. One factor we will look at is the impact of the current medications used to treat schizophrenia. If we can gain a better understanding of the causes of this disorder, it could lead to more effective treatment methods being developed.”

Until now, research has primarily focussed around the role of genetic factors in schizophrenia, but other variables, including factors in the environment, are likely to be important in the onset of the disease. For example, genetic variation cannot explain why identical twins often differ, with one twin developing schizophrenia, and the other being free of the condition.

The research team will look instead at epigenetic changes – the molecular processes which alter the physical and chemical structure of DNA. They effectively “switch” genes on and off. His team will use state-of-the-art technology to examine DNA methylation, a chemical modification to one of the four bases of DNA, which can be inherited through cell division. It is one of the best understood epigenetic marks, and is thought to be an essential factor in influencing the appearance and behaviour of cells, and enabling them to form the wide-ranging characteristics necessary for complex life forms to develop from a single, static DNA sequence. Recent evidence suggests that these epigenetic tags to the DNA can be affected by external factors, such as diet, stress, alcohol, drugs or medication.

Prof Mill said: “Unlike our DNA sequence, epigenetic processes can be highly dynamic, and may be a route by which the environment can influence gene expression. This will be the first large-scale study to examine how genetic and epigenetic factors interact in the onset of schizophrenia.”

The researchers will examine several thousand samples, including clinical blood samples and brains of patients who were affected by schizophrenia and died. They will also examine identical twins where just one has schizophrenia.

Dr Leonard Schalkwyk, at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, said: "This is a very exciting opportunity to integrate the epigenetics of schizophrenia with what we already know about the genetics of the disorder. We are working with a tremendous group of geneticists and the study holds great promise for better understanding of the disease."

For further information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, email: seil.collins@kcl.ac.uk or tel: 0044 207 848 5377

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