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Schizophrenia Begins in the Womb, Stem Cells Show

May 15, 2014 02:38 PM EDT
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Researchers have discovered new evidence that indicates that, like many genetic disorders, schizophrenia may begin in the womb. Using stem cells, researchers observed the formation of early-stage neurons and identified key changes common among schizophrenic patients.

According to a study published in Molecular Psychiatry, scientists harvested skin cells from four patients with schizophrenia, and six volunteers with normal mental health.

These adult stem cells were then stimulated in a lab to revert back to an earlier form which could be prompted to produce early-stage neurons called neural progenitor cells (NPC).

These NPCs were then exposed to different settings so that the researchers could observe how each cell moved and interacted. According to the study, NPCs generally form a sphere of neurons in a developing brain. How far and how quickly these neurons move can provide insight into how they would perform during brain development.

Interestingly, the researchers quickly found that the NPCs of the schizophrenic patients behaved very differently, compared to the NPCs of the healthy participants. "Aberrant migration" - strange movement and adhesion patterns - were common among the schizophrenic NPCs, indicating that the neural cells of schizophrenics may have had difficulty forming concise connections. This could result in poor connectivity later seen in the brain, where many schizophrenics show weak cell-communication and limited white matter - the connective tissue of the brain.

This could also explain why schizophrenia is such a varied disorder. Connectivity issues can result in a plethora of problems and schizophrenic patients can face difficulty talking sense, experience severe paranoia, and even often report hearing voices in their head, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

The results of this study also help support a long-held theory that schizophrenia is genetic. According to the NIMH, the illness only occurs in 1 percent of the general public, but has been diagnosed in 10 percent of people who are directly related to someone with the disorder.

The study was published in Molecular Psychiatry, a Nature publication, on April 1.

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