Israeli-American study uncovers genetic cause of childhood schizophrenia

Caroline Haïat

Digital Journalist | @carolinehaiat

3 min read
View of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, in Jerusalem, Israel.
Mendy Hechtman/Flash90View of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, in Jerusalem, Israel.

Symptoms are accompanied by altered cognitive and behavioral functions

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced Monday that a decade-long research effort to investigate the genetic contribution to the development of childhood schizophrenia has come to an end. The results of the study, conducted in collaboration with the Eitanim Psychiatric Hospitals, the Jerusalem Mental Health Center, the Sheba Medical Center and researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Columbia University in New York, were recently published in Schizophrenia Research.

The role of genetics in schizophrenia is widely studied in the common form of the disease that appears in adolescence or early adulthood. However, it has rarely been examined in young patients with childhood schizophrenia, a severe and rare form of schizophrenia that appears before age 13. It is estimated that there are approximately 200 people with childhood schizophrenia in Israel today.

"Childhood schizophrenia manifests itself in the same way as in adults, including symptoms such as erroneous thoughts, hallucinations, disorganized speech and behavior, as well as decreased motivation and other symptoms. All of these symptoms are accompanied by impaired cognitive and behavioral functions," explained Professor Yoav Kohn, former chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Hadassah Hebrew University School of Medicine and director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Service at Eitanim.

Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90
Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90Students at the campus of "Mount Scopus" at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, Israel.

Childhood schizophrenia poses a diagnostic problem for mental health professionals, as many children report unusual phenomena in terms of thought and perception, which may result from the normal use of the imagination to cope with mental distress.

There is also a differential diagnosis with autism and anxiety disorders, as well as post-traumatic disorders that can even reach states close to psychosis.

"Childhood schizophrenia has an even stronger genetic basis than later schizophrenia. So there is reason to believe that in this population, it will be easier to identify the genetic component of the disease etiology," said Dr. Anna Alkelai, a research associate at the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Columbia University.

According to Dr. Kohn, genetic research on schizophrenia is currently being conducted on tens of thousands of patients selected by hundreds of researchers collaborating in a large international consortium. 

Although evidence has been found for the association of more than 100 genetic regions with the disease, these studies rarely find mutations in genes that can be definitively linked to the etiology of the disorder. 

Furthermore, the genetic changes most common in adult schizophrenia are not uncommon in healthy individuals. Therefore, these findings are not conclusive and are not yet useful for improving the diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

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