New Study Is 'Crucial Turning Point' in Battle Against Schizophrenia
Scientists may have found the genetic cause for the disease
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 27, 2016 4:08 PM CST
This image made with a fluorescent microscope shows C4 proteins, green, located at the synapses in a culture of human neurons. A new "landmark" study links a genetic C4 variant with schizophrenia.   (Heather de Rivera/McCarroll Lab/Harvard via AP)

(Newser) – Scientists published Wednesday what the New York Times is calling a "landmark study" in the fight against schizophrenia. “This paper gives us a foothold, something we can work on, and that’s what we’ve been looking for now, for a long, long time,” one genetics professor says. The Guardian reports the study, published in Nature, connects schizophrenia to a natural process known as "synaptic pruning," which eliminates some connections between brain cells during adolescence. People with an "overactive" variant of the gene C4 lose more synapses during this pruning period and are about 25% more likely to develop schizophrenia, according to the Times.

“For the first time, the origin of schizophrenia is no longer a complete black box," the Guardian quotes the director of MIT's Broad Institute, where some of the research was done. "We’ve seen the power of understanding the biological mechanism of disease in other settings." The study means doctors may eventually be able to treat the cause of schizophrenia and not just its symptoms. It could also explain why schizophrenia typically shows up in late adolescence and—according to the study—why people with schizophrenia have fewer synapses in their brains. While any new treatment derived from the study is a long way off, one mental health expert tells the Guardian it's a "crucial turning point in the fight against mental illness." (Could finger length also be used to predict schizophrenia?)