The death of newborn brain cells may be linked to five major psychiatric diseases, according to research carried out at the University of Iowa.
The study also demonstrates that a compound currently being developed for use in humans may be able to treat these diseases by preventing the cells from dying.
A 2013 study of psychiatric illness found that mutations in the gene CACNA1C are a risk factor for schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and ADHD. All of which share the common clinical feature of high anxiety.
The new study, published in the journal eNeuro, shows that the loss of this gene — in mice — inhibits the survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus. It is the death of these hippocampal neurons that the study links with these psychiatric conditions.
Andrew Pieper, the study’s lead author, said: ‘We have identified a new function for one of the most important genes in psychiatric illness. It mediates survival of newborn neurons in the hippocampus, part of the brain that is important in learning and memory, mood and anxiety.’
Anjali Rajadhyaksha, the study’s co-author, said: ‘Genetic risk factors that can disrupt the development and function of brain circuits are believed to contribute to multiple neuropsychiatric disorders. Adult newborn neurons may serve a role in fine-tuning rewarding and environmental experiences, including social cognition, which are disrupted in disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders.
‘The findings of this study provide a direct link between the CACNA1C risk gene and a key cellular deficit, providing a clue into the potential neurobiological basis of CACNA1C-linked disease symptoms.’
The researchers said they were able to restore normal brain function in mice lacking the gene using a neuroprotective compound called P7C3-A20, which is currently under development as a potential therapy for neurodegenerative diseases.
This research is fascinating and certainly warrants further exploration, but we must remember that it is currently at mouse level, and we do not know whether it will be applicable to humans. There are also many other factors (the effects of the environment for instance) to be considered that influence the development of mental health problems.
Research score: 3/5