Skip to main content
Move the World.
Study Shows Schizophrenia Begins in the Womb, Unraveling a Genetic Mystery
Credit: Jerry Lai / Flickr

Half of the genes linked to schizophrenia are involved in running the placenta during pregnancy, according to a new study in Nature Medicine. The discovery is surprising because researchers had assumed that schizophrenia genes would be primarily active in the brain, but, in retrospect, it explains a lot. Complications in pregnancy, such as preeclampsia, are a known risk factor for schizophrenia, but exactly how and why was always unclear. This research fills in a huge gap between the environmental and genetic causes of the disorder, and it is giving scientists hope for identifying vulnerable babies—and possibly discovering early interventions to protect them.

A Dangerous Disease: Schizophrenia is a rare mental disorder characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and trouble thinking clearly, and it often presents with other cognitive and emotional problems, like depression, paranoia, and substance abuse. It's a tragic, mysterious, and dangerous disease—life expectancy for individuals with schizophrenia is cut by 10-25 years. There are no objective diagnostic markers, and it's diagnosed solely through abnormal behaviors. Problems during pregnancy play a role, but symptoms (hearing voices, imagining things, and sudden, prolonged loss of focus) don't usually show up until young adulthood, typically around age 20. Some people recover as they get older, and treatment can help, but for most, the condition is chronic.

Causes Unknown: Schizophrenia is highly heritable, but the specific causes remain vague and elusive. The prevalence is the same in both sexes, but the disorder tends to be more severe and emerge sooner in boys. About 20% of pregnancies have the complications that double a child's risk—such as fetal growth restrictions, infections, and preeclampsia—but only about 0.7% of children will ever develop the disorder. A landmark 2014 study linked it to over 100 sections of DNA, but each only very slightly raised the risk.

Genes + Stress: A new analysis of schizophrenia genes is finally getting some traction on how all these mechanisms fit together. The key insight is that about half of schizophrenia genes are responsible for directing the placenta, the organ in the womb that attaches the fetus to the mother and provides oxygen, nutrients, and antibodies.

Combining these placental genes with pregnancy trouble, like infection, hypoxia, malnutrition, and other prenatal stresses, increased a person's risk of schizophrenia by a factor of five, compared to those who only had the genes. The most likely theory is that the placenta modulates how the fetal brain responds to stress and inflammation, and a very particular combination of factors in the womb sets up neurological problems that emerge as the brain finishes developing later in life.

So What Now? Schizophrenia is still enormously complicated—the full list of processes, proteins, and genes that may be involved is mind-boggling—and this discovery does not point to any specific cures or treatments yet. But uncovering a bit more about how schizophrenia is passed on and how the environment triggers its genetic risk factors is a very big deal.

The scientists' new plan of attack is to grow mini-placentas in a lab, using stem cells from people with schizophrenia, to study how their genes respond to different levels of inflammation, nutrients, and oxygen. Hopefully, this will lead to much more accurate prediction of the risk of schizophrenia and give doctors a clue about what kinds of early interventions might work.

Up Next

Future of Medicine
Reading Your Digital Signature to Detect Depression, Parkinson’s
Digital phenotyping mental health disorders
Future of Medicine
Reading Your Digital Signature to Detect Depression, Parkinson’s
Digital phenotyping uses our smartphones to detect anything from Parkinson's disease to mental health disorders.

Digital phenotyping uses our smartphones to detect anything from Parkinson's disease to mental health disorders.

Medical Innovation
Experts Are 3D Printing Coronavirus Supplies for Hospitals
coronavirus supplies
Medical Innovation
Experts Are 3D Printing Coronavirus Supplies for Hospitals
After an Italian firm 3D printed in-demand coronavirus supplies for a hospital, others in the community were inspired to offer their own help.

After an Italian firm 3D printed in-demand coronavirus supplies for a hospital, others in the community were inspired to offer their own help.

Computing
World’s Fastest Supercomputer Helps Battle COVID-19
supercomputer
Computing
World’s Fastest Supercomputer Helps Battle COVID-19
The Summit supercomputer made quick work of complicated simulations to identify 77 compounds that could be promising COVID-19 treatments.

The Summit supercomputer made quick work of complicated simulations to identify 77 compounds that could be promising COVID-19 treatments.

Digital Detectives
Hackers Find Missing People for Fun
Hackers Find Missing People for Fun
Watch Now
Digital Detectives
Hackers Find Missing People for Fun
This search and rescue expert discovered that many missing people had nobody looking for them. Then he had an idea: what if hackers made a game out of finding missing people through the internet?
Watch Now

One unfortunate truth that anyone involved in a missing person case quickly learns is that there are more missing people in the world than there are available resources to find them. The first few days after a person goes missing are the most crucial for finding them safe and sound. However, since missing people tend to turn up on their own, these cases are initially given low priority. The exception is if there's a strong...

Dispatches
CRISPR Edits Out Autistic Traits in Mice
CRISPR Edits Out Autistic Traits in Mice
Dispatches
CRISPR Edits Out Autistic Traits in Mice
The technique could also open up treatments for Huntington's, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.

The technique could also open up treatments for Huntington's, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.

How Drones are Changing Disaster Relief
How Drones are Changing Disaster Relief
Watch Now
How Drones are Changing Disaster Relief
As Hurricane Florence hits, here's a look at how drones are changing disaster relief.
Watch Now

Drone technology is fundamentally changing the way we respond to natural disasters. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, rescue teams used drones extensively to map and triage affected areas, while utility and cellular providers used them to inspect damage and prioritize repairs. Cheap to operate and with the ability to cover widespread areas, drones are changing the game when it comes to cleaning up disaster zones. ...

Coded
The Lawyer Who Defends Anonymous
The Lawyer Who Defends Anonymous
Watch Now
Coded
The Lawyer Who Defends Anonymous
Jay Leiderman isn’t your normal defense attorney. He’s committed his career to defending hackers, including...
Watch Now

Jay Leiderman isn’t your normal defense attorney. He’s committed his career to defending hackers, including Anonymous, the world’s most secretive and famous hacking organization.

Coded
How an Exiled Cryptographer is Protecting Journalists in His Native Ethiopia
How an Exiled Cryptographer is Protecting Journalists in His Native Ethiopia
Watch Now
Coded
How an Exiled Cryptographer is Protecting Journalists in His Native Ethiopia
An exiled blogger teaches journalists in his native Ethiopia how to avoid capture
Watch Now

In Ethiopia, the main prison is divided into eight zones. Many refer to the rest of the country as “Zone 9.” But Endalk Chala is fighting back. Chala moonlights as an encryption expert, helping bloggers in his native Ethiopia escape capture and torture.