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Research builds on genetic link to autism and schizophrenia

A genetic link between schizophrenia and autism is enabling researchers to study the effectiveness of drugs used to treat both illnesses.

Dr Steve Clapcote from the University of Leeds's Faculty of Biological Sciences will be analysing behaviour displayed by mice with a genetic mutation linked to schizophrenia and autism and seeing how antipsychotic drugs affect their behavioural abnormalities.

"We don't fully understand how the drugs used to treat schizophrenia and some symptoms of autism work," explained Dr Clapcote. "If we can show they can affect mice with this particular genetic mutation, then it gives us a clue to better understand the illnesses and opens up the possibility of more targeted treatments with fewer side effects."

A number of autism and schizophrenia patients have been found to have mutations of neurexin 1a, a protein which helps to form and maintain nerve signals in the brain. Scientists in the USA recently discovered that mice with the same genetic mutation display behavioural abnormalities which are consistent with schizophrenia and autism.

Dr Clapcote is planning to build on these initial findings to provide further evidence for a genetic link to the conditions. He also aims to assess the impact on the mice of antipsychotic drugs used to treat schizophrenia and some symptoms of autism.

"The genetic studies so far are suggesting a common cause for both schizophrenia and autism, which is something our studies will help to establish," said Dr Clapcote.  "However, these illnesses are complex, involving not only inheritance, but other factors such as environment and experience. It's possible the genetic mutation might create a predisposition, making people more likely to develop autism or schizophrenia."

The mice will be run through a series of tests designed to assess behaviour related to autism and/or schizophrenia: hyperactivity, sensitivity to psychostimulants, attention levels, memory, social interaction and learning. Dr Clapcote will also look at verbal communication - using bat recorders to 'listen' to the interaction between the mice which takes place beyond the range of human hearing.

"Behaviour is the final output of the nervous system and the means by which autism and schizophrenia are diagnosed, which is why our research focuses on behaviour," said Dr Clapcote.  "Schizophrenia and autism patients both display lower levels of verbal communication and we hope to see this mirrored in the mice we're working with."

The two-year project has been funded by a £250,000 grant from the Medical Research Council. If the research proves successful, Dr Clapcote plans to investigate a proposed link between neurexin 1a and nicotine dependence, as a possible explanation for why a large percentage of schizophrenia patients become dependent on tobacco.

Further information from

sJo Kelly, Campuspr Ltd, tel 0113 258 9880, mob 07980 267756, email jokelly@campuspr.co.uk

or

Guy Dixon, University of Leeds press office, tel 0113 343 8299, email g.dixon@leeds.ac.uk

Notes to editors

  1. Dr Steven Clapcote is Lecturer in Pharmacology in the University of Leeds' Institute of Membrane and Systems Biology.
  2. The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over 150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty is ranked 4th in the UK (Nature Journal, 457 (2009) doi :10.1038/457013a) based on results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE feedback noted that "virtually all outputs were assessed as being recognized internationally, with many (60%) being internationally excellent or world-leading" in quality. The Faculty's research grant portfolio totals some £60M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk
  3. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk
  4. For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including the first antibiotic penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. www.mrc.ac.uk