NUI Galway researcher, Dr Derek Morris, has been awarded a National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation, for his research into risk genes that cause schizophrenia and how they contribute to cognitive deficits in patients. A NARSAD Grant is one of the highest distinctions in the field of mental health research.
The Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation is the top non-governmental funder of mental health research grants, which awarded a total of $3.9 million to 40 mid-career scientists from 36 institutions in 10 countries. The funding will support basic research, new technologies, early intervention/diagnostic tools, and next-generation therapies for schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism, PTSD, and other serious mental illnesses.
Schizophrenia is a common but severe debilitating adult-onset mental illness characterised by hallucinations (for example, hearing voices), delusions (for example, believing that you are being followed), a lack of desire to accomplish goals or form social relationships, and problems with cognition (poor memory, IQ or attention).
The disorder is highly heritable meaning that many of the risk factors for developing the disorder lie in our genes and can be passed from generation to generation. Our genes are encoded in our DNA, the genetic material that carries the instructions for life. Each of our 20,000 genes contains the instructions to produce proteins that help each cell in the human body to function. A change in the DNA code can stop a gene or protein from functioning properly with the knock-on effect by causing brain cells not to function properly, leading to illnesses like schizophrenia. New research has now identified many risk genes for schizophrenia but how most of these genes are involved in this complicated illness is unknown.
Research Investigator, Dr Derek Morris from the School of Natural Sciences at NUI Galway, said: “Schizophrenia is desperately in need of new drug treatments as current anti-psychotic drugs, discovered serendipitously more than 50 years ago, are only partially effective and do not treat the cognitive deficits in patients that most affect their quality of life.”
Dr Morris’ research will focus on new schizophrenia risk genes that function in epigenetic mechanisms (controller) genes that regulate the functions of other genes. Epigenetic regulation has been shown to be an important part of the biology of cognitive performance. This is important because cognitive deficits are a core feature of schizophrenia and are key factors for explaining disability in schizophrenia, leading to significant unemployment and social isolation.
The causes of disability are poorly understood and not effectively targeted by current treatments. One major reason for the drought in new treatments is a lack of understanding of the shared biology of cognition and schizophrenia. Dr Morris aims to identify the genes with epigenetic functions that contribute to cognitive deficits in patients and use this new knowledge to build towards new treatments.