One of our great strengths is our ability to recognize patterns, to break down the whole into its parts to better understand how it became whole in the first place. In medicine, this has led to errant diagnoses, as with Hippocrates and the four humors—the notion that all disease stems from one of four bodily fluids. (In all fairness, autopsies were taboo when the Greek physician lived.) While some patterns are highly speculative, we’re getting better at recognizing ones that matter.
A groundbreaking study recently published in the journal, Science, has discovered patterns of genetic activity that overlap with five major psychiatric disorders: alcoholism, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. This revelation could help researchers develop potential treatments for each of these diseases. For the first time, it also provides a physical basis for some of our most common disorders.
Analyzing data from the postmortem brain tissue of over seven hundred human brains, researchers found similar levels of certain molecules in those suffering from autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Further analysis found links between bipolar and depression, as well as depression and autism.
The conditions show activation of astrocytes, star-shaped glial cells in the brain and spinal cord. Among their many functions, these cells provide biochemical support to the cells that help form the blood-brain barrier, provide nutrients to nervous tissue, and play a role in the repair and scarring of the brain and spinal cord after traumatic injuries. The “signatures” researchers discovered in this study affect how brains cells communicate with one another.