'Teen gene' could be the key to combating severe mental illness


The teenage years are the time when most mental illnesses surface, and adolescents are known to be vulnerable to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and drug addiction.

Researchers at the Douglas Institute Research Centre at McGill University believe they have isolated a gene called DCC that is responsible for dopamine connectivity during adolescence.

The study

Working with mice models, the researchers have shown that dynfunction of this gene during adolescence has behavioral consequences that carry into adulthood.

"Certain psychiatric disorders can be related to alterations in the function of the prefrontal cortex and to changes in the activity of the brain chemical dopamine," says Cecilia Flores, senior author on the study and professor at McGill's Department of Psychiatry. "Prefrontal cortex wiring continues to develop into early adulthood, although the mechanisms were, until now, entirely unknown."

Hope for future therapies

Identifying the first molecule involved in how the prefrontal dopamine system matures could lead to targeted therapies and pharmacology for treatment or prevention.

"We know that the DCC gene can be altered by experiences during adolescence," said Dr. Flores. "This already gives us hope, because therapy, including social support, is itself a type of experience which might modify the function of the DCC gene during this critical time and perhaps reduce vulnerability to an illness."

The study appears in Translational Psychiatry with Dr. Flores as the lead investigator and Dr. Colleen Manitt as lead author. The study was funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, the National Science and Engineering Council of Canada, and others.


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