C4 and Schizophrenia

When I hear “C4” I immediately think of the television series “Lost” and explosive material. C4 is also the shortened name of Complement component 4- one of a group of proteins that work together to make the immune system.  The C4 gene that codes for this protein is on Chromosome 6, and everyone has different variations in this gene, referred to alleles. Researchers from the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, recently published a study with a hypothesis that a key cause of schizophrenia involves different alleles of this gene. The researchers noted that people who had schizophrenia were more likely to have a certain variation that promotes neural “pruning.”

Pruning is part of normal brain development during childhood, and especially during adolescence. Pruning is the process where synapses in the brain are eliminated. It is believed that the purpose of synaptic pruning is to remove unnecessary neuronal structures from the brain; as the human brain develops, the need to understand more complex structures becomes much more pertinent, and simpler associations formed at childhood are thought to be replaced by complex structures.

It may be that different alleles cause different amounts of pruning. Perhaps less pruning, which could lead to too much information being retained, could be a risk factor for mental health.  This could be one of the factors contributing to schizophrenia- there are likely many genetic and environmental factors. More knowledge of these mechanisms may be helpful in creating or refining treatment.

Here is the link to the study’s abstract:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v530/n7589/full/nature16549.html#access

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Robin Williams and the tipping point.

 

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According to CNN, Robin Williams took his life today. He was 63 years old.

Williams should be remembered for creative talent in comedy and acting, and as Larry King also mentioned, he should be remembered as a “genuine caring guy.”

 

Williams appeared to “have it all” in so many ways- marriage, family, money, a career in the competitive world of show business, unbridled talent.

 

He had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and had dealt with addiction to alcohol and cocaine. He publicly addressed his disease and his decision to go to rehab. Even with all the resources possible at his disposal, he still got to a place that was so dark he could not find his way back.

 

My hope is that he will someday be remembered as the guy who tipped the scales on the stigma of mental illness. Maybe  Robin Williams’ death can become the tipping point for change.

The point where we accepted that mental illness is a disease that needs to be acknowledged without stigma.

 

The point where we realized that we need to help all people with their depression, mania or psychosis.

 

The point where we realized that money spent on mental health is a great investment in our community.

 

The point where we realized that it might make sense to offer voluntary screening programs to determine who is at risk for mental illness, and be able to offer intervention for those that need it and want it.

 

The point where we can say

 

“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

 

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Biggest Loser and the Anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s Death.

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Feb. 4th, 2014 was the 31st anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s death. Karen was a drummer and singer, famous for her work with her brother in their duo, The Carpenters. Karen suffered from anorexia and died of heart complications related to the disease. She was only 32 years old.

Feb 4th, 2014 is also the day that the Biggest Loser competition crowned their current season’s winner, Rachel Frederickson. Rachel started the competition at 260 lbs, and lost 155 lbs, -almost 60% of her body weight.  At 105 lbs, Rachel is under the recommended BMI for her age and height.  A trip on the stairs while she walked to the scale was prehaps an indication of her fragile state.

Rachel was quoted on 2/5/14: “I’m at the maintenance point now so I need to find some balance and make sure I work out and I eat healthy and make good choices 90 percent of the time,” she told TODAY after the finale. “I’m not sure (I’ll maintain this weight), but I plan to try new exercises and just continue on this path and see where that takes me.”

While she may have just lost weight for the competition, everyone knows the real challenge begins after the show is over. For some, it’s keeping the weight off, for others, it might be coping with a new-found eating disorder.

Eating disorders have a genetic component, most likely involved with neurotransmitter pathways- pathways which help the brain sooth the body and reward survival behavior (sex, eating, exercise). People with disruptions in the neurotransmitter pathways often subconsciously look for external reward methods- drugs, alcohol, food, extreme exercise, or adrenaline producing behavior. People with eating disorders are often found to be competitive perfectionists. While Rachel may just have lost the extreme amount to win, who knows what hurdles she may now face without the reward of the competition.

While it is a coincidence that Rachel won with an anorexic body type on the 31st anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s death, let’s hope we’ve actually learned something from Karen’s life, and have an open conversation with Rachel about the potential trap. This is an extremely bad example for people who are trying to make a healthy change in their lives, and the Biggest Loser needs to step up and make some changes in the show’s rules to prevent this from happening again.

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Do People With Mental Illness Age Faster Than People Who Are Unaffected?

Last week I attended a talk by Dr. Owen Wolkowitz, psychiatrist and professor at UCSF Langley Porter Institute.  His answer to this question is “yes.”  He refers to mental illness as “disorders of the whole body.”

There is data that people with mental illness die, on an average, 25 years earlier than people in the general population.  30-40% of people with mental illness die of suicide or accidents, but the remaining 60% die of natural causes earlier than the general population.

There are some obvious reasons as to why:

1)      Poor lifestyle – smoking , drinking, illicit drug use, bad nutrition

2)      Poor access to healthcare, poor medication compliance, homelessness

3)      Medication side effects such as obesity, increased lipids

Less obvious are some of the behind the scenes factors, such as inflammation due to stress.

It is also possible that mental illness actually changes our DNA, in particular our telomeres. Telomeres are the pieces of DNA at the ends of the chromosomes. Each time a cell divides, it duplicates its chromosomes, and a little bit of the end of the chromosome is lost. At some point, too much information is lost, and instead of dividing, the cell dies. This is the aging process in a nutshell. We can’t have cells that live forever (that’s what happens in cancer, the mechanism gets screwed up and the cell keeps dividing forever.)  Telomerase, the enzyme that adds the telomeres to the end of the chromosome, can be measured in the blood, and can be used as a marker for aging.

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Studies have been done on telomeres of people with mental illness. Studies of people with depression show telomere shortening. Adults with early life trauma have shorter telomeres, demonstrating perhaps a “scar in the brain.”  There’s evidence that people with schizophrenia who take anti-psychotic meds have longer telomeres than people with schizophrenia who aren’t taking any medication- demonstrating a potential benefit of medication. It’s possible that anti-psychotics can have an effect by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.

The good news is that telomeres can lengthen. Factors known to extend telomere length to a healthy level include exercise, dietary restraint, multivitamins, folate, Omega 3’s, stress management, statins, estrogen and social support. So while good nutrition, good sleep, exercise and avoidance of illicit drugs are good plans for everyone, they are especially important for people with mental illness, or people at risk for mental illness.

Link to article on telemore shortening:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006322306001363

Genetic Clues to Anorexia Nervosa

Teen Anorexia Treatment

Anorexia nervosa is a complex disorder, a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental and behavioral factors. A recent study looked at 152 genes that are known to be involved in eating behavior, dopamine function, and brain communication to look for genetic variations that might be associated with Anorexia. Three groups of research subjects  were looked at for a total of 1205 case subjects and 1948 controls. Results from the study linked anorexia with two genes: ESR2 and EPHX2

ESR2 is an estrogen receptor. Estrogen receptors are found in both men and women, but play a higher role for women, particularly starting in adolescence. Anorexia is more common in women, and typically develops around the start of puberty, so the connection here at least follows logically. It may come to some as a surprise that men also can have anorexia, and men also need a small amount of estrogen for strong bones and brain function.

EPHX2 ‘s connection is not as obvious. The gene codes for the epoxide hydrolase protein which is involved in the breakdown of fats and toxins. EPHX2 is involved in cholesterol metabolism, and defects in the gene are associated with a disease called familial hypercholesterolemia. Anorexia nervosa patients often display hypercholesterolemia, which is counterintuitive, given the under-nutrition and low body weight of affected individuals. The study says, “It has been hypothesized that low levels of cholesterol may decrease the activity of serotonin receptors and transporters and that significantly lower cholesterol levels are associated with depressive symptoms, impulsive/self-harmful behavior (cutting and/or burning) and suicide thoughts/attempts in anorexia patients. Moreover, lower cholesterol levels have been associated with increased suicidality more broadly, including ideation and attempts, in depressed patients.”

Dr. Schork, one of the paper’s authors said, “The hypothesis would be that in some anorexics the normal metabolism of cholesterol is disrupted, which could influence their mood as well as their ability to survive despite severe caloric restriction.”

The study hopes that their results will provoke interest and more research into the connection between these genes and anorexia.  It’s exciting news for researchers studying eating disorders.

Here’s the link to the article:

http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/vaop/ncurrent/pdf/mp201391a.pdfmale anoerxia

New Clues to the Cause of Schizophrenia

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A research study published Aug 25th on Nature Genetics online has found 22 genetic risk loci for schizophrenia, 13 of which are new discoveries. Genes at these loci suggest involvement of two pathways- the calcium signaling pathway and the “micro-RNA 137” pathway. Calcium plays a major role in normal cell functioning. It is a signaling molecular involved in synaptic activity (the junction between nerve cells where neurotransmitters like serotonin are released), cell to cell communication and cell adhesion. In the brain, calcium is fundamental in the control of synaptic activity and memory formation. Calcium signaling disturbances are already known to be involved in different brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases. The Micro-RNA 137 pathway is involved in neuronal development. This association of development and regulation of brain nerve cell genes with schizophrenia may further understanding and help with new treatments for the disease.

The lead author of the study, Patrick F. Sullivan, MD , commented:

“This study gives us the clearest picture to date of two different pathways that might be going wrong in people with schizophrenia,” Sullivan said. “Now we need to concentrate our research very urgently on these two pathways in our quest to understand what causes this disabling mental illness.”

The link to the study is here:

http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ng.2742.html

Can We Predict Who Will Attempt Suicide?

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Scientists at the Indiana University School of Medicine are looking to answer this question by analyzing proteins in the blood of patients who have mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder.  They looked at the amount of these proteins in the blood when the person was in a suicidal state vs. a non-suicidal state. A significant difference in expression was found for proteins coded for by the genes SAT1, PTEN, MARCKS and MAP3K3.  SAT1 is involved in the Omega-3 signaling pathway. MARCKS is involved in sleep–wake cycles, as well as mood regulation. PTEN is involved in regulation of the cell cycle and MAP3K3 directly regulates the stress-activated protein kinase SAPK.

Their conclusion was that “suicidality may be underlined, at least in part, by biological mechanisms related to stress, inflammation and apoptosis.” Apoptosis is the natural programmed cycle of cell death. The researchers wrote “our results have implications for the understanding of suicide, as well as for the development of objective laboratory tests and tools to track suicidal risk and response to treatment.” At some point this information could be used to predict and differentiate future and past hospitalizations due to suicidality in patients with bipolar disorder and psychosis (schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder).

 

The link to the complete article is here:

http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/mp201395a.html