A new study published in Nature and widely reported in the mainstream media claims to have ‘removed any doubt’ about a biological cause for schizophrenia.
The study claims that more than one hundred genes associated with dopamine, the immune system and heavy smoking are implicated in causing the condition.
The researchers, from across many different countries, but led by the Stanley Centre for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, looked for genes that were common across of 150,000 participants, 25% of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The over-representation of those with the condition (i.e. 1%, not 25%, of the American population are diagnosed with schizophrenia) was apparently necessary to identify the contributions of multiple genes to the schizophrenia picture.
Commenting on the diffuse and seemingly unrelated collection of genes identified, Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Centre said:
“Some are very familiar genes expressed in nerve cells, and some are results where you scratch your head and you know you have more work to do.”
Fortunately for Hyman, there will be no shortage of funding for continuing research on this theme – thanks to a $650 million donation by Ted Stanley (the largest ever to date in biomedical research), who obviously has more than a passing interest in both schizophrenia and the Stanley Centre.
Hyman made clear the end-game of the research is to wind up not with a list of genes but, rather, novel treatments. His colleague at the institute, former Merck executive, Ed Scolnick, has already developed a pioneering drug development programme which is ready and waiting to get those drugs into the public domain.
Smaller genetic studies have hinted at a link between the immune system and schizophrenia – people with schizophrenia often carry inflammatory blood markers. But equally, studies have implicated stress as a cause of schizophrenia, in which case you would expect to find immune compromise. Twin and adoption studies also clearly demonstrate the role of nurture in the development of the condition, even where there is thought to be a genetic predisposition.
The tone of the publicity being given to this research is authoritative and, combined with what is clearly a very large media spend, it runs the risk of being perceived by the public as ultimate truth – this is certainly the way it is being pitched.
On the very first day of my science degree, the lecturer penned onto the white-board in large capital letters THE SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLE and, from there, went onto explain, at depth for several lectures, that in science, nothing is ever proven. We formulate hypotheses, yes, and the hypothesis is then either supported or refuted. We never, ever arrive at a conclusive position, simply a working model – that is, we have the humility to understand that life and science are bigger than we are and that our understanding is only valid until such time as further evidence illuminates the proposition.
We would be well advised to scrutinise this research and its context – it is not independent (a thing of the past, as far as anyone can tell) and therefore is bound to be influenced by the commercial aspirations of its funders. Perhaps schizophrenia can be attributed to a specific set of genes, but even if it can, there is too much evidence for the effectiveness of non-genetic interventions in the treatment of the condition to be certain either way.
We need to keep our eyes and ears open as the old order, rooted in morality, gives way to the new. Otherwise we risk falling prey to the obfuscation of reality. Ironically, we’ll all be schizophrenic.
Written by Jacqui Hogan