This Week in Research: Cocaine and Schizophrenia

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“It was remarkably serendipitous,” Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon Snyder says. He’s talking about his team’s discovery of the brain pathway that’s affected by ingesting cocaine — and the fact that a compound to block that specific pathway, CGP3466B, has already been pinpointed. “Not only did CGP3466B help confirm the details of cocaine’s action,” Snyder says, “but it also may become the first drug approved to treat cocaine addiction.”  Using a drug to help a cocaine addict might be in the near future.

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Scientists have long puzzled over the origins of schizophrenia. Though the disease clearly ran in families, it didn’t act like a garden-variety genetic disorder. “Schizophrenia as a simple inherited disease didn’t make sense from an evolutionary point of view because people with the disease tend to have fewer children and the disease-causing genetic variants shouldn’t survive,” says Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Dimitri Avramopoulos.

Furthermore, researchers looking to pinpoint the gene variants responsible for schizophrenia haven’t found much luck; though they’ve identified a few genes that seem to be weakly linked to the disease, they couldn’t account for its persistent prevalence.

In keeping with current research on complex genetic diseases, Avramopoulos and his team began exploring whether schizophrenia might be caused by a number of genetic variants acting together. In other words, if people have one faulty gene that predisposes them to the disease, their body is able to compensate — but if there’s more than one affected gene in a system, the risk of schizophrenia rises accordingly. Their results showed that multiple defects to the neuregulin signaling pathway correlated with higher rates of schizophrenia.

“These results support the idea that there’s no single genetic recipe for schizophrenia, but that a buildup of mutations in a pathway related to the disease — like neuregulin signaling — can be the culprit,” Avramopoulos says. “The results are also evidence for the current theory that schizophrenia isn’t a single disease at all, but a suite of related disorders.”



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