Placenta plays an important role in genetic risk of schizophrenia, study finds

May 21, 2023 03:37 PM IST

A new study has discovered that the placenta plays a considerably larger role in the development of sickness than previously thought.

A recent study headed by the Lieber Institute for Brain Development found that more than 100 genes linked to the risk of schizophrenia appear to induce disease owing to their activity in the placenta rather than the developing brain.

Schizophrenia is serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally.(Representative image)
Schizophrenia is serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally.(Representative image)

For nearly a century, scientists concluded that genes for schizophrenia risk were mostly, if not entirely, concerned with the brain. However, new study published in Nature Communications has discovered that the placenta plays a considerably larger role in the development of sickness than previously thought.

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"The secret of the genetics of schizophrenia has been hiding in plain sight--the placenta, the critical organ in supporting prenatal development, launches the developmental trajectory of risk," says Daniel Weinberger, M.D., senior author of the paper and Director and CEO of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, located on the Johns Hopkins medical campus in Baltimore. "The commonly shared view on the causes of schizophrenia is that genetic and environmental risk factors play a role directly and only in the brain, but these latest results show that placenta health is also critical."

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The researchers discovered that schizophrenia genes alter the placenta's ability to monitor nutrients in the mother's circulation, including oxygen, and exchange nutrients according on what it discovers. The schizophrenia risk genes are more weakly expressed in the placental cells termed trophoblasts, which constitute the core of this maternal-fetal nutrition exchange, adversely compromising the placenta's role in feeding the growing foetus.

The paper also identifies several genes in the placenta that are causative factors for diabetes, bipolar disorder, depression, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. The scientists, however, found far more genetic associations with genes for schizophrenia than for any of these other disorders.

The researchers also discovered that the risk genes for schizophrenia found in the placenta may have a relatively greater effect on heritability, the likelihood of illness inherited from ancestors, than risk genes found in the brain.

"Targeting placenta biology is a crucial new potential approach to prevention, which is the holy grail of public health," says Gianluca Ursini, M.D., Ph.D., the lead author on the paper and an investigator at the Lieber Institute. "Scientists could detect changes in placental risk genes decades before the possible onset of a disorder, possibly even in the mother's bloodstream during pregnancy. If doctors knew which children were most at risk of developmental disorders, they could implement early interventions to keep them healthy."

The scientists also found interesting sex-based differences in the placenta risk genes. Different genes were associated with schizophrenia risk based on whether the placenta came from a male or female child. In pregnancies with male children, inflammatory processes in the placenta seem to play a central role. Previous research has shown males are more vulnerable than females to prenatal stress. Generally speaking, developmental disorders such as schizophrenia occur more frequently in men and boys.

The researchers also uncovered concerning results about COVID-19 pregnancies. The scientists studied a small sample of placentas from mothers who had COVID-19 during pregnancy and found the schizophrenia genes for placenta risk were dramatically activated in these placentas. The finding indicates that COVID-19 infection during pregnancy may be a risk factor for schizophrenia because of how infection affects the placenta. Lieber Institute scientists are pursuing this possibility with NIH-funded research examining COVID-19 placentas to learn more.

The Lieber Institute researchers hope their ongoing study of the genes of the placenta will one day lead to new treatment and diagnostic tools, perhaps revolutionizing the field of prenatal medicine.

"In the modern era of molecular and genetic medicine, the standard treatment for a complicated pregnancy is still primarily bedrest," said Dr. Weinberger. "These new molecular insights into how genes related to disorders of the brain and other organs play out in the placenta offer new opportunities for improving prenatal health and preventing complications later in life."

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