Now, Prof. Illana Gozes from the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University has discovered that an important cell-maintenance process called autophagy is reduced in the brains of schizophrenic patients.
Autophagy is the process in which a membrane engulfs and consumes the clutter and it is essential to maintaining cellular health. But when autophagy is blocked, it can lead to cell death.
"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," Prof. Gozes said.
Brain-cell death also occurs in schizophrenics, so Prof. Gozes and her colleagues set out to see if blocked autophagy could be involved in the progression of that condition as well.
They found RNA evidence of decreased levels of the protein beclin 1 in the hippocampus of schizophrenia patients, a brain region central to learning and memory.
Beclin 1 is central to initiating autophagy - its deficit suggests that the process is indeed blocked in schizophrenia patients. Developing drugs to boost beclin 1 levels and restart autophagy could offer a new way to treat schizophrenia, the researchers said.
The study is published in journal Nature's Molecular Psychiatry.