Like patients with schizophrenia, adult mice biogenetically-engineered to have higher Neuregulin 1 levels showed reduced activity of the brain messenger chemicals glutamate and GABA. The mice also showed behaviors related to aspects of the human illness. For example, they interacted less with other animals and faltered on thinking tasks.
Schizophrenia is thought to stem from early damage to the developing fetal brain, traceable to a complex mix of genetic and environmental causes. Although genes identified to date account for only a small fraction of cases, evidence has implicated variation in the Neuregulin 1 gene. For example, postmortem studies have found that it is overexpressed in the brain's thinking hub, or prefrontal cortex, of some people who had schizophrenia. It codes for a chemical messenger that plays a pivotal role in communication between brain cells, as well as in brain development.
Prior to the new study, it was unclear whether damage caused by abnormal prenatal Neuregulin 1 expression might be reversible in adulthood. Nor was it known whether any resulting behavioral and brain deficits must be sustained by continued errant Neuregulin 1 expression in adulthood.
“The deficits reversed when we normalized Neuregulin 1 expression in animals that had been symptomatic, suggesting that damage which occurred during development is recoverable in adulthood,” explained Lin Mei, M.D., Ph.D. , of the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University, a grantee of NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
“While mouse models can’t really do full justice to a complex brain disorder that impairs our most uniquely human characteristics, this study demonstrates the potential of dissecting the workings of intermediate components of disorders in animals to discover underlying mechanisms and new treatment targets,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “Hopeful news about how an illness process that originates early in development might be reversible in adulthood illustrates the promise of such translational research.”
Reference: Mei, Dong-Min Yin, Ph.D., Yong-Jun Chen, Ph.D., and colleagues reported on their findings May 22nd, 2013 in the journal Neuron.