The research team from Tel Aviv University discovered that a process called autophagy is reduced in the brain of a person with schizophrenia. Authophagy — a “cell-maintenance” mechanism — clears out the dysfunctional and needless parts of a cell.
When this process is blocked, cells die.
The findings show that patients with schizophrenia have reduced levels of a protein called beclin-1 in the hippocampus (a brain region linked to learning and memory). Beclin-1 plays an important role in autophagy, the researchers note. This finding suggests that autophagy may be blocked in the brains of schizophrenic patients.
The researchers believe that creating drugs that increase beclin-1 levels and trigger autophagy may lead to a new treatment for schizophrenia.
“It is all about balance. Paucity in beclin-1 may lead to decreased autophagy and enhanced cell death. Our research suggests that normalizing beclin-1 levels in schizophrenia patients could restore balance and prevent harmful brain-cell death,” said lead author Illana Gozes, Ph.D., of Tel Aviv University.
When researchers measured beclin-1 in the blood of schizophrenic patients, however, the levels were normal. They say this suggests that reduced levels of the protein are confined to the hippocampus.
They also found that patients with schizophrenia have increased levels of a protein called activity-dependent neuroprotective protein (ADNP) in their white blood cells.
This protein, discovered by Gozes in 1999, is crucial for function and formation of the brain. The team notes that previous research has also shown that ADNP is abnormal in the brains of schizophrenics.
They hypothesize that when beclin-1 levels drop and autophagy is slowed down, the body increases ADNP levels to help protect the brain. Therefore, ADNP could be used as a biomarker — meaning a blood test could be used to diagnose schizophrenia.
The investigators hope their research will lead to further knowledge that will help them better understand the mechanisms and treatment of schizophrenia.
“We discovered a new pathway that plays a part in schizophrenia. By identifying and targeting the proteins known to be involved in the pathway, we may be able to diagnose and treat the disease in new and more effective ways,” said Gozes.
Source: Molecular Psychiatry