New genetic research just announced is being seen as a major breakthrough in understanding the cause of schizophrenia. However, in my opinion, this research should go a long way to improving how those with this disease and their families are perceived, in silencing the anti-psychiatry crowd and in convincing health systems to do more.
What scientists have uncovered is that the gene variant C4 on chromosome 6 is highly variable. In an analysis of 65,000 people with and without schizophrenia, they found that those who had a particular form of the gene had a higher expression of that gene and a higher risk of developing schizophrenia.
This gene not only helps to remove debris from the body after foreign invaders are destroyed by the immune system but it also prunes brain synapses that are no longer needed as the brain develops into adulthood. This is a normal process but in schizophrenia, it is believed that there is excessive pruning and subsequent loss of grey matter. In those who develop schizophrenia, these genes target too many cells for elimination.
The concept of excessive pruning has been hypothesized in the medical literature for quite some time to explain why schizophrenia does not manifest itself until later in adolescence. Researcher, Dr Steven McCarroll of Harvard who headed up the study, told the CBC that autopsies performed on those with schizophrenia have found fewer synapses than in people without schizophrenia. This research is the first time it has been demonstrated how this deficit of synapses and the loss of grey matter occurs.
What I find significant about this research is that it proves that the long held belief by many (which still exists today) that families are to blame for schizophrenia is not valid. In fact, in the CBC interview cited above, Dr McCarroll makes that very point. At about the 7 minute mark, he states that you cannot blame the parents for a biological process.
Going beyond that, it should disprove to all those who argue that it is trauma in childhood that is responsible for schizophrenia that this is not the case. This is the mainstay theory of the British Psychological Society and of the Hearing Voices movement and others. It should also put to rest the arguments of many of the anti-psychiatry advocates who say that if you don't have a simple blood test to prove schizophrenia then it doesn't exist. That's like saying because you can't do a simple test to prove Alzheimer's Disease, it too doesn't exist.
As this is a biological/genetic condition, then clearly governments should be doing more to help those who suffer. Right now, throughout North America, large numbers of people with schizophrenia are abandoned by our society and health care systems to homelessness and jail rather than being cared for in a proper and humanitarian way. There is no excuse for this and now, with this research, even less excuse.
What society abandons and ignores those amongst it that suffer from physical problems not of their own making?
And just maybe, thanks to research of this sort, we can end talking about schizophrenia and other biological illnesses as mental health problems and issues. Yes, they are problems and they are issues but they are that because they are real illnesses and it is about time society began to see them as they really are -- devastating illnesses which should not be trivialized by the terms issues and problems.
Governments which fund most programs should only fund those that provide programs that are evidence based. Just recently in another blog, I wrote about Ontario providing about $500,000 a year to a program called Family Outreach. The social worker who started that believes that madness, as she calls it, is really a human experience rather than an illness, she is distrustful and opposed to the medical model and considers that people can do well without the need for medical intervention.
It will likely be a long time before the benefits of this most recent genetic research can be translated into more effective treatments but until that happens, we can change our attitudes about this condition and we can and should improve how we treat those who suffer.