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Although schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are two very debilitating and common mental health issues, their cause has gone undetected for years. They are also very challenging to diagnose and treat.
But one thing's for sure; they are both highly heritable, and there could be clues in the gene concerning how the disorders develop.
This has led researchers to study more deeply into human genetics. However, very few clues have been found within the DNA, in the parts known as genes. So scientists have been forced to look outside of these genes.
Interestingly, scientists have discovered evolved regions in the 'dark genome' -- a place outside our genes -- that code the proteins linked with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The scientists hypothesize that the region in the dark genome linked with the disorders may have evolved because it was beneficial to human development. However, disruption of that evolution by environmental factors could lead to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
"By scanning through the entire genome we've found regions, not classed as genes in the traditional sense, which create proteins that appear to be associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder," said Dr Sudhakaran Prabakaran, senior author of the report. "This opens up huge potential for new druggable targets. It's really exciting because nobody has ever looked beyond the genes for clues to understanding and treating these conditions before."
What's even more interesting about the research findings is that this evolving region in the dark genome isn't found in any other primate besides humans.
That may be explained by the fact that our brains are far more developed. As our cognitive abilities increase, the evolving area suffers disruptions, leading to either of the two disorders.
According to Chaitanya Erady, one of the study authors, scientists have focused too much on the genes alone because of its conservative definition. But other parts outside of it, such as the dark genome, generate proteins. And these proteins are associated with the disorders mentioned above.
If the root cause of a disorder can be found, then it becomes easier to target it through treatment. Notably, most drugs currently manufactured for schizophrenia and bipolar target proteins coded by genes. However, these disorders do not develop from the genes but outside of them. That's probably why the treatment is often so challenging.
From the research findings, scientists can develop treatment methods that specifically target the root cause of these conditions. Perhaps, they could even be prevented or treated from birth since they're hereditary.
Fortunately, Prabakaran has gone on to found his company NonExomics to commercialize the findings. He has also generated funding to develop new treatments that will target the proteins and regions associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.