From worlds apart, siblings are tracing roots of schizophrenia


Living worlds apart, two siblings from India are being closely tracked as they tread into new frontiers of medical science.

In a series of studies since 1996, psychiatrists Dr Vishwajit Nimgaonkar of the University of Pittsburgh, and his sister, Dr Smita Deshpande of the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi, have teamed up with the Delhi University genetics department to investigate genes that are associated with schizophrenia. The research has focused on Caucasians and north Indians under the Indo-US Programme for Genetics and Psychoses.

They have found that predisposing genes are mostly similar in both ethnic groups but the genetic variants, which could have a role in developing schizophrenia, are largely different. Several clinical manifestations of the disease have also thrown up contradictions between the two ethnic groups — such as the likelihood of patients resorting to suicide, consumption of tobacco, marriage and bearing children.

Dr Deshpande, who heads the psychiatry department at RML Hospital and is principal investigator of the project in India, said: "While it is too early to say that the identified genes have a direct causal relationship with schizophrenia, we can say they definitely make people susceptible to the disease, increasing the risk factor. So, preventive steps can be taken from an early stage."

Genetic or hereditary factors have a strong role to play but environmental and behavioural patterns equally influence the likelihood of the disease and this made the siblings compare the role of the same genes in different ethnic groups.

Dr Nimgaonkar, who heads the programme in genetics and psychoses at the University of Pittsburgh and is principal investigator for the collaboration in the United States, said: "We recognised early on that schizophrenia, like most common diseases, is caused by inherited as well as environmental risk factors. Therefore, it was appealing to examine the same sets of genetic variants in different environmental settings. As environmental factors in India and the US are very different, it provided an appealing setting for this type of study."

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