October 16, 2013. By manipulating a gene suspected to be involved in schizophrenia, researchers were able to make small changes in brain cells, with big consequences. As reported in a new study published September 18, 2013, in Neuron, even small changes to the connections between brain cells produce large changes to the overall circuitry of the brain, as well as in behaviors that may be relevant to the symptoms of schizophrenia.
Oscar Marín and Beatriz Rico of CSIC-University Miguel Hernández in Alicante, Spain, and their colleagues genetically engineered a group of mice to have lower levels of the brain molecule ErbB4, which has previously been linked to schizophrenia. The method is so precise that they were able to alter the ErbB4 levels just in a particular kind of brain cell, the interneuron. There is good evidence that these cells are malfunctioning in the illness and that they may be responsible for the thinking and memory deficits that are so detrimental to a patient’s quality of life.
Turning off the ErbB4 gene in the interneurons resulted in relatively small changes in the connections between neurons, but much greater alterations in how they interact to produce thought and behavior. Although the symptoms of schizophrenia cannot be truly modeled in a mouse model such as this, and some alterations that are present are different from findings in the illness, this study points to a connection among the ErbB4 molecule, problems with interneuron signaling, and schizophrenia. (For more details, see the related news story.)—Allison A. Curley.