Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have identified dozens of new spontaneous genetic mutations that play a significant role in the development of schizophrenia, adding to the growing list of genetic variants that can contribute to the disease. The study, the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, was published today in the online edition of the journal Nature Genetics.
Although schizophrenia typically onsets during adolescence and early adulthood, many of the mutations were found to affect genes with higher expression during early-to-mid fetal development. Together, the findings show that both the function of the mutated gene and when the gene is expressed are critically important in determining the risk for schizophrenia.
The findings inform epidemiologic studies showing that environmental factors, such as malnutrition or infections during pregnancy, can contribute to the development of schizophrenia. "Our findings provide a mechanism that could explain how prenatal environmental insults during the first and second trimester of pregnancy increase one's risk for schizophrenia," said study leader Maria Karayiorgou, MD, professor of psychiatry at CUMC, and acting chief, division of Psychiatric and Medical Genetics, New York State Psychiatric Institute. "Patients with these mutations were much more likely to have had behavioral abnormalities, such as phobias and anxiety in childhood, as well as worse disease outcome."
In an earlier study of 53 families, the team of investigators found that spontaneous, or de novo, mutations - genetic errors that are present in patients but not in their parents - play a role in a substantial portion of sporadic cases of schizophrenia. The mutations were found in the part of the genome that codes for proteins, known as the exome.
In the larger, current study, the researchers performed whole-exome sequencing on 231 patient "trios" from the United States and South Africa. Each trio consisted of a patient and both of his or her parents, who were unaffected by the disease. By comparing the exomes of the patients with those of their parents, the researchers were able to identify de novo rather than heritable, mutations that may contribute to schizophrenia. This is the first study of this scale to search for single nucleotide variations in the exomes of schizophrenia patients. Previous studies from the Columbia group and others searched for much larger genetic variations, such as gene deletions or duplications.
The researchers identified many mutated genes with diverse functions. They also identified four new genes (LAMA2, DPYD, TRRAP, and VPS39) affected by recurrent de novo events within or across the two populations, a finding unlikely to have occurred by chance.