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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Business Insider’s Discussion of Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing (with some quotes from yours truly)

I was interviewed for Business Insider Magazine regarding Kailos direct to consumer genetic tests. I think Lydia did a nice job discussing the benefits and limitations of at home genetic testing.genes

Here’s her article:

I shipped my spit to a genetics company to have it tested, 23andMe style — here’s what I found out

That information can be used for everything from finding out where your family came from to figuring out if you’re predisposed to certain diseases.

Companies like AncestryDNA and23andMe have been partnering with drug companies to try and figure out what role genetics plays in getting sick, and how it can help us get better faster.

But how much can the average consumer learn from his or her genes?

I decided to try out some tests from Kailos Genetics, a genetic-testing company based in Huntsville, Alabama, to find out. All of the tests Kailos offers are designed to help determine how you might respond to certain medications. These include antidepressants, contraceptives, breast-cancer medication, pain-management treatments, blood thinners, and stomach-acid reducers. You can also opt for an all-inclusive test that includes all of these genetic markers.

About me: I’m a 22-year-old woman who is, apart from some seasonal allergies, healthy. I ordered the contraceptives and antidepressant tests that Kailos offers, since those would be the types of medications I’d be most likely to use at this point in my life. I also have a family history of blood-clot problems, which in some cases can be worsened by oral contraceptives.

Here’s how it went down:

Sending my spit to Kailos

A week after ordering the two tests, I got a big purple envelope in the mail:

praxis envelope cropLydia Ramsey/Business Insider

The kit came with instructions, a letter explaining the test, two swabs, a collection bag, and an envelope:

kailos kitLydia Ramsey/Business Insider

I opened up the first swab and started collecting samples of my cheek tissue on the left side of my mouth. To get a good sample, I had to scrape the side of my cheek up and down with the swab for about 30 seconds.

IMG_4990Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

After repeating the process with the other swab, I put both of them back in the collection bag, packed them all up in the return envelope, and shipped it off to Kailos for testing:

IMG_4992Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

The results

Once Kailos’ diagnostic lab got my envelope, my sample went through an enrichment process to separate the genetic material — my DNA — from the rest of the stuff on the cotton swab so they can have a better look. Then, the lab technicians looked at my DNA and used a computer to home in on the genetic regions that are relevant to the specific test they were running.

Next, they turned the results over to Kailos’ in-house physicians to interpret the results. These doctors are what allow Kailos to sidestep the problem of needing a middleman — who’d most likely be my primary-care doctor — to discuss my results with me.

Instead of talking to a doctor, my results were posted online to my account on Kailos’ website, which I’d created to order the test.

Thumbs-up for medication No. 1

Screen Shot 2015 10 01 at 4.37.12 PMLydia Ramsey/Business Insider

For the first part of my results, which looked at whether I should avoid certain contraceptives, I saw two big “thumbs-up” symbols.

This meant that the test, which looked at two genes related to how my blood clots, found they were functioning normally — there was no reason they could see that I shouldn’t take the medication.

Those genes were my Factor 2 and Factor 5 genes. Research has found that people with a specific mutation, or tweak, on either of these genes can be at risk of dangerous blood clots, which can stop the blood from flowing from your heart to other parts of your body.

All of this is important for someone considering using contraceptives, since the kind that are taken orally (aka many traditional birth-control pills) can be linked with an increased risk of blood clots in some people; the hormone estrogen in the pills increases certain proteins in the blood that help it stick together and clot.

Thumbs-up for medication No. 1 … sort of

Screen Shot 2015 10 08 at 4.44.21 PMLydia Ramsey/Business Insider

The next part of my test results focused on whether I had genetic tweaks that could make it a bad idea for me to take antidepressants. The test looked at potential indications against taking three of the most popular types: tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

Genetics can give us clues about how good our body is at absorbing certain oral antidepressant medications. The CYP2D6 and CYP2C19 genes, for example, make proteins in the liver that break down a hefty proportion of prescription drugs, including antidepressants.

The good news? I should be good to go with all three types: I don’t have any mutations that would cause my body to absorb the drugs poorly.

But while my results suggested my body could handle any of these medications — should a psychiatrist or mental-health professional prescribe them to me, of course — experts say the results aren’t so clear.

Carmela Thompson, a genetic counselor with Genetic Discovery SF, told Business Insider that although she thinks genetic tests are great for figuring out if a person has a hereditary condition like Huntington’s disease, she wouldn’t recommend using them as the sole way to determine the best solution to treating psychiatric conditions.

At least not yet.

“As far as psychiatric conditions go, we’re not there yet and we may never be there,” said Thompson. That’s because the conditions often have multiple factors in addition to genes at play, like environmental factors, so what’s influenced by genetics isn’t quite as clear.

Why Kailos didn’t run into the same problem as 23andMe

Genetic testing companies, like 23andMe, have run into trouble with the FDA for not getting its approval before making their genetic-health tests, which are pretty similar to the ones Kailos offers, available.

But Kailos is already government regulated. As a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-regulated industry, Kailos’ lab facilities are regularly inspected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is in charge of ensuring they’re up to par.

Also, having a physician analyze the tests on Kailos’ end is a key way to steer clear of the roadblocks other genetic-testing companies face. Instead of providing uninterpreted information directly to a consumer, that information is going through a trained professional who can make sure it’s interpreted accurately. Troy Moore, Kailos’ chief scientific officer, told Business Insider the reason they opted for more specific tests for certain medications came from their background as a clinical lab.

The verdict

While it was easy to submit my samples and see my results, I didn’t find the test incredibly helpful. I’m grateful to see my results were positive, but part of me was hoping to learn something more nuanced about how my genetics interacted with medicine, like if a certain type of contraceptive would have less negative side effects or would work better for me than another, or if I shouldn’t take contraceptives at all.

Along with the thumbs-up/thumbs-down rankings, Kailos also provides all the raw information for the genes each test looked at, which could help a doctor dive deeper into what the test means for me.

I could have asked a doctor to go over my results with me typically the tests Kailos provides are coordinated with a physician, but when I saw the thumbs-up signs, I didn’t think going over my results with a doctor was necessary.

Which brings up a potential concern when it comes to consumer tests overall: What if, after receiving his or her results, a patient who was on medication chose to use them to start making changes to when and how he or she takes it?

This was a concern Thompson brought up when I told her I hadn’t contacted my doctor about my results. Because parts of genetic tests can get really complex, it’s helpful to have people with at least a physician-level knowledge of genetics around to interpret what it all means, she said.

“It’s just a tool,” Thompson added.

Microbiome and Major Depression (i.e. Bacteria and Mood)

probiotics

Embryos develop from a small ball of cells to a flat sheet of cells. This sheet rolls up into a tube. One end of the tube becomes the brain, the other end becomes the digestive tract.

There is communication along this brain-gut axis via nerves, hormones and the immune system (via the blood). And I’m probably not the only person who asked out loud for my stomach to stop growling, so there’s a cognitive connection too :).

There is some evidence that our intestinal micro biota, the bacteria that we harbor that aids in digestion, actually communicates with our brain via the immune system. Scientists are also investigating the hypothesis that modification of microbial ecology, for example by supplements containing microbial species (probiotics), may be used therapeutically to modify stress responses and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

A recent study from the Netherlands reported the first evidence that the intake of probiotics may help reduce negative thoughts associated with sad mood and suggest that probiotics supplementation warrants further research as a potential preventive strategy for depression.

The study was small, 40 people total for cases and controls, but it certainly works as a pilot study for more research.

The study was published with open access- you can read it here:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889159115000884

This also adds to the evidence that chocolate is good for us! Also, probiotics do not have to be taken as supplements. Besides chocolate, probiotics are found in fermented foods such as kim chi, and in yogurt.

http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/features/what-are-probiotics

“Schizophrenia” might include eight genetically distinct conditions

A study from the Washington University School of Medicine reports that Schizophrenia could be a catch phrase for eight genetically distinct conditions. This makes some logical sense as symptoms and drug response vary for people with schizophrenia. People rarely fit into discrete categories.

We know that these are not single gene conditions. This research looks at how multiple genes can work together. Someday it might help with a genetic risk profile.

Go to news.wustl.eustl.edu/news/pages/27358.aspx for more info. I’ll post a link to the abstract when I’m back home and at a better computer.

23andMe Ordered by FDA to Stop Marketing Genetic Tests

freeimage-6744613-web genome

I’ve been on the fence about 23andMe’s personalized genetic tests.I like that it’s a cheap way to access your own DNA- which many of us may never have the opportunity to do. On the other hand, many of the gene allele interpretations are based on very small research studies that may not apply to the general population. The test has risk predictors for mental health conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and alcholism. I have looked at the studies that 23andMe bases their intrepretations on, and I find them lacking. I would not recommend that anyone make decisions on treatment, medication, or personal life decisions such as having children, on such results.

23andMe is backed by Google, so obviously there is a lot of money behind the company. I think it is very important that the FDA takes this stand, and demonstrates to the American public that profit has to take a backseat to safety.

Alberto Gutierrez, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a letter to the company made public on Monday that 23andMe had failed to address concerns raised on multiple occasions since the agency began working with it on compliance in July 2009. He commented that the the FDA does not have any assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated the tests for its intended uses.

23andMe responded  “We recognize that we have not met the FDA’s expectations regarding timeline and communication regarding our submission,” the company said in a statement. “Our relationship with the FDA is extremely important to us and we are committed to fully engaging with them to address their concerns.”

23andMe has plans to start markeing to the public via televison. As far as I can see from the report, they will not be able to do this immediately.

Here is a link to more information:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/25/genetics-23andme-fda-marketing-pgs-screening

 

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.

telemore-image2

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

Is There A Link Between Football and Suicide?

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Last night Frontline aired the documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis”, a report about the connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and football. CTE is is a form of encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease, which can only be definitively diagnosed after death in individuals with a history of multiple concussions and other forms of head injury.  This disease is known in boxers who receive multiple blows to the head during their careers. A debate ensues as to whether other athletes who receive multiple concussions and minor traumas over the course of their careers, such as football players and wrestlers, are also subject to brain damage as a result.

The documentary presents evidence that brain damage can result from multiple “sub-concussions” over time, and investigates as to whether the NFL knew about the evidence, ignored it, and failed to provide this information to professional football players.

In the documentary we are told about football players who committed suicide, such as Junior Seau, and players who suffered from depression and dementia, such as Mike Webster.  Pathologists have been able to dissect the brains of some of these players, and have found evidence of CTE.  Also presented are two young men, Owen Thomas, 21-year-old lineman at Penn, who committed suicide by hanging himself in 2010, and 18-year-old Eric Pelly, a high-school athlete who died after suffering a concussion in 2006.  Both young men were shown to have CTE on autopsy.

It is possible that depression and suicide in professional athletes can be due to steroid, alcohol and drug abuse, and the difficulty in adjusting to a new life and employment after a potentially short pro football career. This explanation is difficult to accept for these younger players. It could be possible that there is a link between the brain damage and the ensuing depression, addiction and suicide.

Of course not all football and ice hockey players, wrestlers and boxers wind up depressed or addicted, so CTE is not the only factor. My hunch is that some players are more likely genetically predisposed to encephalopathy, and the repeated minor trauma is the environmental factor which pushes them over the edge.  This could be an explanation for why some teens develop psychosis and others don’t when subject to traumatic brain injury. A meta-analysis from 2011 supported an increased risk of schizophrenia following traumatic brain injury, with a larger effect in those with a genetic predisposition to psychosis.

While more data is needed to show the links between contact sports and CTE, enough evidence is available to encourage more rules and better equipment to protect players from trauma. Children under the age of 16 should not be allowed to play tackle football, as their brains are smaller and still developing, with less protection from TBI. Perhaps pro football careers will have to have limits, such as Steve Young’s self-imposed retirement after he suffered his seventh concussion on a huge hit from Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams. As Steve Young says in the documentary “If my knees hurt, we can go deal with it. There is only one place in the body that we don’t understand… the brain is the last frontier.” You only get one brain.

Link to Frontline’s documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” :

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/league-of-denial/

Link to Traumatic Brian injury and schizophrenia

http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/752208