According to research from the Salk Institute, a gene associated with mental disorders actually helps lay down the foundation for important brain structure during development in the womb. Symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and autism usually take years to manifest and studying suspect brain genes early may be useful in developing new interventions or treatments.

In a study published in the journal Cell Reports, Carlos Perez-Garcia and colleagues revealed the new mechanistic insights they discovered about the gene called MDGA1, which codes for a protein capable of influencing neuron migration in a developing brain.

Over 10 years ago, Dennis O'Leary and his team discovered MDGA1. Coating neurons' outer surfaces, the gene is in abundance in the cerebral cortex, the brain's six-layer area responsible for processing information from the five senses, coordinating movement and allowing a person to be self-aware and to plan ahead.

However, as O'Leary's team was investigating what kind of role MDGA1 plays in the brain's development, other researchers published studies based on large populations implicating MDGA1 in bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and autism.

Fortunately, this did not dishearten O'Leary. Instead, he and his team looked at the new data as bringing a whole new level of meaning to their research, allowing them to asses the results of their work in the context of human disease.

For the study, the researchers looked at MDGA1's role in the brain's early development, when the foundation for a proper cerebral cortex is just being laid. Perez-Garcia, who is a staff researcher in O'Leary's lab in the Salk Institute, disabled the gene in developing mice a little after halfway into a pregnancy and found that neuron precursors in the cerebral cortex ended up in the wrong spots in the brain. The cells then died off without turning into neurons and the cerebral cortex lost about half of the neurons it's supposed to have without MDGA1.

These results suggest that a mutation in the MDGA1 while the cerebral cortex is still under development may have been the starting point for brain disorders to develop. Without the right amount of neurons, the cerebral cortex's ability to communicate with other parts of the brain greatly dwindles.

O'Leary and Perez-Garcia are looking to examine MDGA1's role in adulthood as well and observe the behavior of mice without the gene as the next steps into their research.

Photo: Michael Coghlan | Flickr

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