mental illness

Schizophrenia May Actually Be 8 Disorders in One

Photo: Robert Boston

Schizophrenia can be a devastating diagnosis for sufferers and their family members. In its worst cases, the disease robs people of their identity in cruel, disruptive ways, inducing disruptive hallucinationa, paranoia, and other terrible symptoms. And while medication can, in some cases, control the worst of the symptoms, it often brings side effects with it, and there’s nothing that could be considered a “cure” for schizophrenia at the moment. A new American Journal of Psychiatry study from researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, though, may point researchers in the right direction by offering a more nuanced understanding of the disease’s genetic underpinnings.

To the press release:

New research shows that schizophrenia isn’t a single disease but a group of eight genetically distinct disorders, each with its own set of symptoms. The finding could be a first step toward improved diagnosis and treatment for the debilitating psychiatric illness. 

About 80 percent of the risk for schizophrenia is known to be inherited, but scientists have struggled to identify specific genes for the condition. Now, in a novel approach analyzing genetic influences on more than 4,000 people with schizophrenia, the research team has identified distinct gene clusters that contribute to eight different classes of schizophrenia.

The researchers say they were able to match some specific symptoms to specific genetic markers:

In some patients with hallucinations or delusions, for example, the researchers matched distinct genetic features to patients’ symptoms, demonstrating that specific genetic variations interacted to create a 95 percent certainty of schizophrenia. In another group, they found that disorganized speech and behavior were specifically associated with a set of DNA variations that carried a 100 percent risk of schizophrenia.

The authors note that this study can help explain why certain past research into schizophrenia has led to dead ends — while “groups of interacting gene clusters” appear to be correlated with the disease, “individual genes have only weak and inconsistent associations with schizophrenia.” So if you’re just looking at individual genes, you may not get very far.

The authors think that thanks to this research, “it soon may be possible to target treatments to specific pathways that cause problems.” That would be welcome progress against a really difficult adversary.

Schizophrenia Is Actually 8 Disorders in One