A freshly tweaked brain-scanning method has revealed how people with schizophrenia have reduced levels of a key protein that helps brain cells to communicate. It’s all to do with a protein called SV2A (synaptic vesicle glycoprotein 2A).
The new study by Imperial College London and King’s College London used an advanced imaging technique called PET to reveal that people with schizophrenia tend to have notably lower levels of SV2A in their brains.
The protein can be found in between the synapses of the brain and it’s believed that it can affect how brain cells communicate with one another. With insufficient levels of SV2A, the synapses lose their "connectivity," which could be a key underlying factor in the development of schizophrenia.
“We’ve been able for the first time to show there are lower levels of a synaptic protein in people with schizophrenia. This suggests that loss of synapses could underlie the development of schizophrenia,” Professor Oliver Howes, from the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences at Imperial College London, and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said in a statement.
"We need to develop new treatments for schizophrenia. This protein SV2A could be a target for new treatments to restore synaptic function.”
Although the idea of dysfunctional synapses and SV2A being linked to schizophrenia has been hypothesized since the 1980s, scientists have only previously proved this by looking at the dissected brains of deceased people. This new study is the first time the theory has been demonstrated in living people.
Reported in the journal Nature Communications, the research was carried out on 18 adults with schizophrenia and a control group of the same amount without schizophrenia. Researchers administered a new type of tracer that binds to SV2A, before putting their brains under the gaze of a positron emission tomography (PET) brain scan, which produces detailed 3D images of inside the body. The scans picked up on the lower levels of SV2A in the brains of people with schizophrenia.
The deficiency was especially noticeable towards the front parts of the brain, such as the regions involved in planning. By no coincidence, people with schizophrenia often struggle with tasks that involve planning and memory.
With further research, this new breakthrough could lead the way towards better treatments for this widely misunderstood condition.
“Schizophrenia is a highly debilitating disorder, and the therapeutic options are too limited for many patients. To develop better treatments in the future we need studies like this to shine a light on how the extraordinarily complex wiring of the human brain is altered by this disease,” said Dr Ellis Onwordi, also from the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences and IoPPN, who conducted the research.
“Having scans that can characterise the distribution of the approximately 100 trillion synapses in the living brain, and find differences in their distribution between people with and without schizophrenia, represents a significant advance in our ability to study schizophrenia.”