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HKUST neuroscientist leads team identifying genetic triggers of schizophrenia

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Self-portrait of a person with schizophrenia, representing that individual’s perception of the distorted experience of reality in the disorder, by Craig Finn (schizophrenia patient) Photo: Plos Medicine

A breakthrough in identifying the fundamental mechanism causing schizophrenia and other serious psychiatric disorders has been announced by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Clearwater Bay. The first report of this neuro-scientific feat was reported in the journal Neuron last month. Credit goes to a team led by Professor Zhang Mingjie. Their discovery should lead to new drugs and treatment for mental illnesses, the UST said. About 40,000 Hong Kong people have been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterised by abnormal social behaviour and failure to understand what is real. Symptoms include false beliefs, confused thinking and hearing voices that others do not. We have all observed such people. Symptoms come on gradually in young adulthood, are chronic and last a long time. Cannabis use is a risk factor. Sufferers are likely to have life expectancy reduced by 18 to 20 years.

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Prof Zhang puts a protein sample into the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer to investigate its molecular structure Photo: HKUST

The UST explained Prof. Zhang’s breakthrough this way: “Mutations of DISC1 encoding gene — a human gene that regulates cellular activity, including neurogenesis or birth of neurons — have been known to be associated with psychiatric disorders for more than a decade. How the DISC1 protein interacts with other proteins to impact brain development, however, has not been known until recently. Prof. Zhang and his team discovered the never before known high-resolution structure of DISC1 protein in complex with Ndel1, a vital protein for neurogenesis and other aspects of brain function. The Zhang team found that if the formation of DISC/Ndel1 complex was disrupted by mutations of the DISC1 gene, neurogenesis will be delayed and perhaps cause mental disorder.”

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