Chronic mental illnesses
Chronic mental illnesses (CMI) like schizophrenia or the recurrent affective disorders are prevalent diseases in the realm of psychiatry that affect 1-10% of the population worldwide. In the absence of knowledge on their biological foundations, their diagnosis is currently done exclusively by a clinical interview of a clinical psychiatrist with the patient, without the affirmatory assistance of objective tests, like brain imaging or a blood test. This diagnostic procedure is increasingly perceived as insufficient by patients, their relatives, psychiatrists and also companies developing drugs as remedies against these chronic and disabilitating diseases.
One quandary that has hindered progress in research in the mental illnesses is that clinical diagnoses of CMI, for example that of schizophrenia, likely comprise heterogenous biological causes ending in one behavioural disorder, and, therefore, including all clinically diagnosed cases in broad investigations for biological correlation studies results in too weak associations. On the other side, there have not been inclusion criteria that would allow a narrower selection because this is obviously just what we are looking for in the first place.
The identification of genes
A solution to this problem has been the identification of genes that were identified in families where carriers of a mutation segregate with a mental illness. One such gene is the disrupted-in-schizophrenia 1 (DISC1) gene that was found mutated in a large Scottish pedigree. The mutation, however, was not specific for schizophrenia but for mental conditions in general, indicating that the DISC1 gene is a vulnerability factor for mental illness, and that other yet unknown factors determine the kind of mental illness that results. For the DISC1 gene there have now been multiple studies in different populations around the world and also neurobiological studies confirming its role in behavioural control
Goals of IN-SENS
The present research and training project “IN-SENS” main goal is to start with this candidate gene DISC1 and its functional and physical interacting molecules as a defining pathway for at least a subgroup of CMI. Rather than attempting to explain every cases of schizophrenia or CMI, we focus on just those cases that we can define through a disturbed DISC1 pathway in order to get a narrower, but biologically defined definition of mental illness. Such an approach has been very fertile for investigating other brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.
At the end of the IN-SENS project we hope to have achieved the following:
- Define the DISC1 pathway and the mechanism of how it is deranged in mental illnesses like schizophrenia
- Find out whether measuring molecules of the DISC1 pathway could lead to a biological test of a subgroup of patients with DISC1-dependent mental illness
- Find out and whether the DISC1 pathway is a potential target for drug development, and, in collaboration with the IN-SENS members of the pharmaceutical companies, whether we can identify lead compounds that could be further developed into novel drugs against mental illnesses.
- Having trained a new generation of scientists with interdisciplinary skills necessary to continue the successful research started within IN-SENS