More than $6 million in funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is supporting new research that could fundamentally alter the way we comprehend and, perhaps ultimately, treat schizophrenia.
The research – which is being led by University of Rochester Center for Translational Neuromedicine co-directors Steve Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., and Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc. – will explore the role that support cells found in the brain, called glia, play in the disease.
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder and it is estimated that one percent of Americans suffer from this condition. The cause of the disease is not fully understood.
The new research is possible because of findings published by Goldman and Nedergaard last year that showed that glial cells play an important role in the complex signaling activity that is unique to the human brain. In these experiments the researchers showed that when human glial cells were implanted into the brains of newborn mice the human cells influenced communication within the animals’ brains, allowing the mice to learn more rapidly.
While glial cells had long been overlooked by the scientific community, there is a growing appreciation that these cells – which include astrocytes, the brain’s principal support cell, and oligodendrocytes, the source of myelin, its insulating substance – also play critical roles in processing information in the brain. Astrocytes in particular are far more abundant, larger, and diverse in the human brain compared to other species.
Goldman and Nedergaard have shown that human astrocytes play a significant role in integrating and coordinating the more complex signaling activity found in human brains and regulating our higher cognitive functions. The new NIMH grants examine the specific contributions of both astrocytes and oligodendrocytes to the development of schizophrenia.
The connection between glial cell dysfunction and schizophrenia was first suspected when mutations in genes responsible for the function of these cells were observed in individuals with the condition. Goldman and Nedergaard built upon findings by generating mice implanted with glia derived from stem cells from patients with schizophrenia. This model provided the basis for the two new grants of approximately $3 million each, one focusing on the contribution of astrocyte dysfunction to schizophrenia and the other on the role of oligodendrocytes.
The researchers believe that these awards, which take advantage of their unique model of the disease, will provide new insights into the neurological mechanisms of the disease and create a powerful scientific platform for testing experimental therapies.