For decades, scientists have been working toward discovering the cause of schizophrenia. Now, new research may provide further clues, as scientists have uncovered a molecular process that may contribute to the development of the disorder. This is according to a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), schizophrenia affects approximately 24 million people worldwide.

At present, there is no single test for schizophrenia. The condition is usually diagnosed with an assessment by a mental health specialist.

It is usually treated with a combination of therapy and medication, such as antipsychotics. But the team of study researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel say that antipsychotics are often ineffective, stressing the need for better medication.

However, the investigators say that their new discovery may lead to the development of new diagnostic tests for the disorder, as well as new drug treatments.

The research team discovered that in the brains of schizophrenics, a process called autophagy is reduced. Authophagy is described as a “cell-maintenance” mechanism. It ensures the clearance of dysfunctional and needless cellular components.

But the investigators explain that when the autophagy process is blocked, this can cause cell death.

They found that schizophrenic patients had reduced levels of a protein called beclin-1 in the hippocampus of their brains. The hippocampus is a brain region linked to learning and memory.

Beclin-1 plays an important role in autophagy, the researchers say. Therefore, they note this finding suggests that autophagy is blocked in the brains of schizophrenic patients.

The researchers say creating drugs that increase beclin-1 levels and trigger autophagy could be a potential way forward in the treatment of schizophrenia.

Prof. Illana Gozes, of Tel Aviv University and lead author of the study, adds:

It is all about balance. Paucity in beclin-1 may lead to decreased autophagy and enhanced cell death. Our research suggests that normalizing beclin-1 levels in schizophrenia patients could restore balance and prevent harmful brain-cell death.”

When looking at beclin-1 levels in the blood of schizophrenic patients, the investigators found they were normal. They say this suggests that reduced levels of the protein are confined to the hippocampus.

But the blood tests revealed that schizophrenic patients had increased levels of a protein called activity-dependent neuroprotective protein (ADNP) in their white blood cells.

Prof. Gozes discovered this protein in 1999 and found that it was crucial for function and formation of the brain. The team notes that previous research has also shown that ADNP is deregulated in the brains of schizophrenics.

They hypothesize that when beclin-1 levels drop and autophagy is halted, the body increases ADNP levels to help protect the brain.

From this, the investigators suggest that ADNP could be used as a biomarker, meaning a blood test could be used to diagnose schizophrenia.

Further biochemical tests on the brains of mice revealed that ADNP collaborates with LC3 – a protein also known to be involved in autophagy regulation. The researchers say that this interaction may play a role in the way ADNP protects the brain.

They hope their research will lead to further discoveries that may help to better understand the mechanisms and treatment of schizophrenia.

Prof. Gozes adds:

We discovered a new pathway that plays a part in schizophrenia. By identifying and targeting the proteins known to be involved in the pathway, we may be able to diagnose and treat the disease in new and more effective ways.”

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study detailing how schizophrenia and the use of antipsychotic drugs affect the brain.