Scientists at the University of Cambridge investigating the DNA outside our genes – the ominously named ‘dark genome’ – have uncovered evolved regions that code proteins associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Schizophrenia and bipolar are debilitating mental disorders that are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat effectively. Despite being amongst the most commonly heritable mental health conditions, very little is known with certainty as to the source of the conditions.
Mapping of the mysterious dark genome region has the potential for the development of new treatment
Scientists hypothesise that areas in the dark genome associated with beneficial functions during development, are when influenced by outside environmental factors, have the inbuilt potential to increase susceptibility or the development of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The researchers further believe that genomic components associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are specific to humans, as the discovered regions are not found in other vertebrates and are likely to have evolved as early hominids developed advanced cognitive abilities.
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Consequentially, the research team have concluded that specific proteins produced in the dark genome area have the potential to be used as a biological indicator to distinguish between the two conditions and to identify patients that are at risk of psychosis and suicidal ideation. The symptoms associated with schizophrenia and bipolar are currently challenging for clinicians to distinguish, causing problems in the treatment of both conditions.
Senior author of the study, Dr Sudhakaran Prabakaran, commented: “By scanning through the entire genome we’ve found regions, not classed as genes in the traditional sense, which create proteins that appear to be associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder… This opens up huge potential for new druggable targets. It’s really exciting because nobody has ever looked beyond the genes for clues to understanding and treating these conditions before.”
The majority of currently available drugs are designed to target proteins coded by genes – the findings of the University of Cambridge study have the potential for the development of new targets and avenues for future treatment.