More than 100 genes linked to the risk of schizophrenia seem to cause illness because of their role in the placenta rather than in the developing brain, according to a new study.Scientists had generally assumed for over a century that genes for schizophrenia risk were principally, if not exclusively, about the brain.
But the latest research, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that the placenta plays a much more significant role in developing illness than previously known."The secret of the genetics of schizophrenia has been hiding in plain sight -- the placenta, the critical organ in supporting prenatal development, launches the developmental trajectory of risk," said Daniel Weinberger, Director and CEO of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, US.
"The commonly shared view on the causes of schizophrenia is that genetic and environmental risk factors play a role directly and only in the brain, but these latest results show that placenta health is also critical," he added.
The researchers found that schizophrenia genes influence a critical function of the placenta to sense nutrients in the mother's bloodstream, including oxygen, and exchange nutrients based on what it finds.
The schizophrenia risk genes are more lowly expressed in the cells of the placenta that form the core of this maternal-foetal nutrient exchange, called trophoblasts, negatively affecting the placenta's role in nurturing the developing foetal.
The paper also identifies several genes in the placenta that are causative factors for diabetes, bipolar disorder, depression, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. The scientists, however, found far more genetic associations with genes for schizophrenia than for any of these other disorders.
The researchers also discovered that the risk genes for schizophrenia found in the placenta may have a relatively greater effect on heritability, the likelihood of illness inherited from ancestors, than risk genes found in the brain.
"Targeting placenta biology is a crucial new potential approach to prevention, which is the holy grail of public health," said Gianluca Ursini, lead author on the paper and an investigator at the Lieber Institute.
"Scientists could detect changes in placental risk genes decades before the possible onset of a disorder, possibly even in the mother's bloodstream during pregnancy. If doctors knew which children were most at risk of developmental disorders, they could implement early interventions to keep them healthy," Ursini said.