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UNC researchers find genetic link to schizophrenia

Schizophrenia, which often develops between ages 14 and 22, is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses. And an international team of researchers led by a UNC professor might find a new way to treat people with the disorder.

“There is a lot going on with brain development at that time,” Barbara Smith , a professor at the UNC School of Social Work. “If you find ways to manage stress well, then that’s going to help with your brain health. All of these things that will help somebody get through college can also protect against developing a mental illness.”

About 300 scientists and 80,000 subjects participated in a seven-year international research study led by Dr. Patrick Sullivan, a genetics and psychiatry professor at UNC. The study found 108 sites on a person’s genetic makeup associated with developing schizophrenia .

The findings of the study mean people like Alex Harrison could lead more normal lives in the future.

Harrison had his first psychotic break in 1998. He accused of his sister of having a computer voice. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder , a mental illness that is a combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder.

“I didn’t really believe the diagnosis of schizoaffective,” Harrison said. “I couldn’t work. I was too messed up in the head, too incapacitated.”

‘It won’t be easy’

Since 2001, Harrison has been admitted to the hospital 19 times and attempted suicide four times. With medication and support, he hasn’t been hospitalized in almost 2 years .

Most of the medications used for schizophrenia focus on the psychosis portion of the illness, not the cognitive symptoms, like inability to use information, trouble paying attention and memory problems.

James Crowley , an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics at UNC and co-author of the study, said the research proves schizophrenia is a complex genetic trait. By finding these new genetic sites, Crowley said drug companies could start to develop drugs that target these new areas ­— drugs that might minimize these other symptoms. But he said finding a viable treatment won’t come quickly.

“It’s a time consuming and expensive process,” Crowley said. “And it won’t be easy.”

Chronic and severe

Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe brain disorder. The classic symptom are hallucination and delusions.

“Some of them were like basic things like ‘brush your teeth,’ ‘take a shower,’” Harrison said of the voices in his head. “The worse thing I ever heard was to kill myself.”

Harrison also experiences depression because of his schizoaffective disorder.

“I don’t go out much,” Harrison said, “I don’t have much motivation to do anything except be healthy.”

Harrison lives in a group home with three other residents. They provide each other support and get one-on-one attention from staff.

Finding normalcy

Jenny Gadd — director of quality management and advocacy for Alberta Professional Services , the organization that runs Harrison’s group home — said some symptoms, like disorganized thinking and isolation, are constant and prevent many patients from living a normal life.

“If you can’t quite focus enough to get fully dressed or how to take your shower, it’s really hard to maintain a normal schedule and have a job.”

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Grayson Bowen, a peer support specialist at the UNC Schizophrenia Treatment and Evaluation Program Community Clinic in Raleigh, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at 14 years old. Bowen said his family didn’t understand his illness at first.

His work at the clinic allows him to connect with others with similar issues.

“I give them guidance and support based on my own experiences. I make sure they have somebody to talk to, and a lot of times it’s easier when they are working with someone who also has mental illness.”

Not just a number

Bowen and Harrison were both diagnosed during the peak period for the onset of the illness. Harrison said he wants to change the stigma around schizophrenia.

“It’s important for society to know that people being treated for this illness are generally very law-abiding citizens,” Harrison said. “We are people too. We aren’t just numbers or statistics.”

Crowley said Sullivan’s lab at UNC will continue to study the biology of schizophrenia.

“By this time next year, our study will have doubled in size. That will allow us to identify more genes and assemble even more puzzle pieces.”