According to the World Health Organization, schizophrenia affects around 24 million people globally. It is unknown as to exactly what causes the condition, but an international team of researchers, led by Cardiff University in the UK, has discovered new genetic mutations that may provide further insight into the disorder.

This is according to a study recently published in the journal Nature.

Schizophrenia is a severe disabling brain condition that can cause a person to suffer hallucinations, delusions, abnormal thought processes and even agitated body movements.

The disorder is more common in late adolescence or early adulthood, but it can develop at any age.

Previous research has suggested that the cause of schizophrenia may lie in the genes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 1% of the general population suffer from schizophrenia, but it occurs in 10% of people who have a first-degree relative with the disorder, such as a parent, sister or brother.

For this study, which the research team says is the largest genetic study of its kind, the investigators analyzed DNA blood samples from 623 individuals with schizophrenia and their parents.

The researchers discovered “de novo” mutations. These are gene alterations that are present in the individuals with schizophrenia but not their parents.

The team found that these mutations play a part in triggering schizophrenia. Furthermore, the mutations deliberately disrupt sets of proteins in the brain that are linked to regulating connection strength between nerve cells, brain development, learning, memory and cognition.

Prof. Mike Owen, co-leader of the study from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University, says that alongside another study published in the same issue of Nature, these new findings confirm the importance of the mutations and the sets of proteins related to brain functions.

He adds:

This degree of convergence from several studies is unprecedented in schizophrenia genetics and tells us that for the first time we have a handle on one of the core brain processes that is disrupted in the disorder.”

The researchers say their findings may also suggest an “overlap” between the causes of schizophrenia and the causes of other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and intellectual disability.

They note that further research is needed to determine whether schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders share common mechanisms.

Commenting on the overall study findings, Prof. Hugh Perry, chair of the MRC Neurosciences and Mental Health Board at Cardiff University, says that understanding how a person’s genetic code plays a part in schizophrenia is “crucial” to creating safer and better treatments for the condition.

“This study adds a body of rapidly emerging research being funded by the Medical Research Council on the role of the genome in mental illness. Such advances in developmental biology will help us to unravel the complexity of emotional and behavioral disturbances,” he adds.

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study detailing the discovery of abnormal neural activity in the brain that may cause individuals with schizophrenia to experience unorganized thought processes.