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[psychiatry-research] Discovery of brain phenomenon could lead to better drugs for certain mental illnesses

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  • Ian Pitchford
    FOR RELEASE: 27 MARCH 2000 AT 05:00 ET US Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions http://hopkins.med.jhu.edu/ Discovery of brain phenomenon could lead to better
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2000
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      FOR RELEASE: 27 MARCH 2000 AT 05:00 ET US
      Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
      http://hopkins.med.jhu.edu/

      Discovery of brain phenomenon could lead to better drugs for certain mental
      illnesses

      Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered a phenomenon in the brains of
      individuals with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses that may help
      doctors develop better drugs.

      According to the results of the study that appear in the March issue of
      Molecular Psychiatry, individuals with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and
      major depression have lower than average levels of a certain brain protein
      and, thus, less "plastic" brains. By examining the cascade of events that
      lead to the formation of the protein, the researchers hope to improve current
      therapeutics. The discovery also supports a theory that retroviruses may be
      associated with some cases of mental illness.

      "When designing treatments for these disorders, it is probably going to turn
      out to be very important to interfere with the cascade of interactions," says
      Nancy Johnston-Wilson, Ph.D., a research associate at the Stanley
      Neurovirology Laboratory at Hopkins and lead author of the study.

      In an effort to more precisely identify the cascades associated with these
      disorders, Johnston-Wilson examined levels of some key proteins in autopsied
      brains from 24 schizophrenics, 23 individuals with bipolar disorder, 19
      people with major depression and 23 individuals unaffected by the diseases.

      The researchers discovered that the brains of those with the three mental
      illnesses had significantly lower levels of phosphorylated glial fibrillary
      acidic protein (GFAP) in comparison to the controls. GFAP usually forms
      filaments and is part of the structural network of cells that nourishes and
      detoxifies nerve cells. When GFAP becomes phosphorylated, however, these
      filaments fall apart, making membranes flexible and allowing for cell
      division. The researchers, therefore, conclude that individuals with these
      three mental illnesses have brains that are less plastic than the brains of
      individuals without the disorders. Plasticity is a normal aspect of the brain
      that allows it to adjust to inputs.

      Next, the researchers plan to examine the series of biochemical events
      responsible for phosphorylating GFAP. Many biochemicals including
      neurotransmitters, growth factors and cytokines (proteins that regulate the
      intensity and duration of inflammatory response) can trigger phosphorylation.

      "Identification of pathways which are altered in disease will give us a
      logical place to target for therapeutic interventions," says Johnston-Wilson.
      "Since the drugs currently used to treat schizophrenics take a couple of
      weeks to take effect, it's likely they are targeting the same pathways but in
      a more round about way. If we knew, more directly, what was altered, we could
      design better therapies."

      The decrease in phosphorylated GFAP also supports a new theory that some
      mental illnesses are triggered by a virus, because cell cultures of viruses
      including HIV-1 also show a decrease in the protein. "If mental illness is
      due to viral involvement, we may be seeing the same thing," says
      Johnston-Wilson.

      To learn more about viruses and their role in mental illness, travel to
      http://www.med.jhu.edu/stanleylab/. Other authors of the study include Robert
      Yolken from the Stanley Neurovirology Lab at Johns Hopkins School of
      Medicine; Andrew Shore from the Health Services Research and Development
      Center at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health; E. Fuller Torrey
      from the Stanley Foundation Research Programs, NAMI Research Institute in
      Bethesda, Md; and Christina D. Sims, Jean-Paul Hofmann and Leigh Anderson
      from Large Scale Biology Corporation in Rockville, Md.
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