Autism, Schizophrenia, and Obesity Linked, According to Zebrafish

Duke University Medical Center researchers have recently complete work with zebrafish that allowed them to identify the genes that encode for head size at birth. It is hoped that this will enable doctors to better predict and treat neurodevelopmental disorders that are related to cranial size, such as autism and schizophrenia.

Neurologists and geneticists have long known that chromosome 16 houses a region that contributes to the formation of both autism and schizophrenia. No study had previously been done, however, attempting to connect that region with a neighboring area of chromosome 16 that affects infant head size. The Duke team hypothesized that changes to one area, by virtue of their proximity, would tend to influence the other area as well.

Previous research in this area has been slow as a result of DNA duplications and deletions, which are the most common mutational mechanism in human biology and which make analysis of the genetic data very difficult. To overcome this difficulty, the team inserted a 29-gene segment of chromosome 16 into zebrafish. By selectively activating each gene in sequence, they were able to determine which ones resulted in larger head sizes. The major contributor was KCTD13, which regulates the creation of new neurons, and therefore head size. The team found that the corresponding gene in human children can be associated with autism, schizophrenia, and possibly even childhood obesity.

Because many diseases have physical manifestations caused by specific genetic changes, it is hoped that a better understanding of the interrelatedness of genes that directly cause disease and those that determine appearance will lead to more accurate assessments of disease risk and better customization of treatment protocols.

Source: Nature

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