Baylor College of Medicine researchers have identified a new gene linked to significant abnormalities in learning and behavior.
They said that the loss of CHRNA7 gene through deletion of genetic material on chromosome 15 is associated with abnormalities.
"This research goes about 95 percent of the way to pinning these problems in a specific group of individuals to this gene," Nature quoted Dr. Arthur L. Beaudet, chair of molecular and human genetics at BCM as saying.
He believes that the deletion will be identified in other people with behavioral problems as well as schizophrenia, developmental delay and epilepsy.
However, the gene's role in schizophrenia has been under study for some time.
The study showed that a smaller deletion of genetic material - the whole of the gene in question, CHRNA7, and a part of another was associated with similar problems in 10 members of four families.
"We scanned the genome of about 10,000 people to find this rare but important defect," said Dr. Pawel Stankiewicz, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at BCM.
The gene encodes a protein called an ion channel, which allows ions to flow in and out of neurons in the brain. Defects in ion channels have previously been associated with forms of epilepsy or seizure disorder.
"If insufficient expression of the nicotinic receptor causes most or all of the problems associated with deletions in this particular area of chromosome 15, then it offers a target for drug treatment," said Stankiewicz.
One such drug could be Chantix, a medicine now used in smoking cessation efforts.
The study appears in journal Nature Genetics.