Scientists hope they can one day prevent schizophrenia as early as pregnancy, and new information about how the brain develops in people with the mental illness could help them on that mission.

A study in Schizophrenia Research describes how the researchers uncovered that process, reverting skin cells from four schizophrenia patients “with diverse genetic backgrounds” into the kinds of cells that are responsible for forming the nervous system as babies grow in the womb. They observed those cells and compared them to similar cells they created from healthy patients.

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“These results indicate that schizophrenia is programmed early,” the authors wrote, specifically fingering a genetic mechanism called the Integrative Nuclear FGFR1 Signaling, also known as INFS.

When any one of the many genes linked to schizophrenia affects that mechanism, “it throws off the development of the brain as a whole, similar to the way that an entire orchestra can be affected by a musician playing just one wrong note,” a statement from the University at Buffalo said. That explains why so many different kinds of genetic mutations have been associated with one disease.

The INFS pathway could potentially be targeted with medications to treat schizophrenia.

“Although the primary onset of schizophrenia is during adolescence to young adulthood,” the study notes, it actually originates in the brain much earlier in life, perhaps “in utero during the late first and early second trimester.”

That means those possible medications could be used on pregnant women whose children are more at risk for having the mental illness, “potentially preventing the disease before it begins,” Buffalo said.

This most recent study focused on how schizophrenia develops in the womb, but other research has been trying to detect the disease in living patients, to uncover early indicators of it and find treatments. One study from The Lancet Psychiatry suggested schizophrenia often produces a reaction from a person’s immune system — a reaction that shows itself with certain antibodies. Those researchers proposed using immunotherapy to treat the disease.

Source: Stachowiak MK, Narla ST, Lee Y, Benson CA, Sarder P, Brennand KJ and Stachowiak EK. Common developmental genome deprogramming in schizophrenia — Role of Integrative Nuclear FGFR1 Signaling (INFS). Schizophrenia Research. 2017.

See also:

“Mirror Game” Predicts Schizophrenia in Players

The Genetics of Schizophrenia