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Astrocytes (in green) are seen here in a mouse brain. Credit: NICHD

Scientists have found similar patterns of genes activity in psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar and autism, according to a study published Thursday in Science. They've also discovered some key differences, particularly in major depressive disorder and alcohol abuse disorder.

Why it matters: Some genetic risk factors have been identified for certain psychiatric diseases, but knowing where and when a particular gene is expressed is crucial for developing better diagnostic tools and treatment.

"By understanding the molecular basis [for the disorders], one can begin to ask 'How did this arise? What is the mechanism behind this?'" says UCLA's Daniel Geschwind, a study author. In a way, he adds, the study findings help scientists "move backwards to the causation factors" and then from there new therapeutics can be created.

What they did: The team analyzed the genes expressed in 700 tissue samples from the brains of deceased patients who had one of the five psychiatric disorders and compared them with samples from brains of people without the disorders.

What they found: a "significant overlap" between some of the disorders, whereas others showed unique molecular changes.

  • Autism: They saw a strong decrease in specific neuronal signaling pathways, and an increase in cells that support the central nervous system, called microglia and astrocytes.
  • Schizophrenia had a similar, but less extensive, pattern of decreasing neuronal signaling pathways, along with a strong increase in astrocytes but not microglia.
  • Bipolar disorder had a similar but weaker pattern than schizophrenia. "Thus, there is somewhat of a gradient for these three," Geschwind says.
  • Major depressive disorder: There was a distinct pattern of genes involved in hormonal regulation and stress response.
  • Alcohol abuse disorder is further distinct from the other disorders, not showing any substantial overlap. The pattern is complex and Geschwind says they need more samples (this study only used 17 samples) and more testing to determine how strong the role of environment and exposure to alcohol plays.

"Gene expression analyses bring us one step closer to the molecular biology of these diseases and complement the genetic studies on psychiatric disorders that have been published in the last years," Harvard Medical School associate professor Kasper Lage, who was not part of this study, tells Axios.

One thing to note: These disorders are complex and studies like these can be good for finding potential genes associated with a trait or disease but can't say whether or how they are directly involved.

Sofia Frangou, a psychiatrist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is "hesitant in extrapolating the results to clinical action just yet," Ashley P. Taylor writes in The Scientist.

"Because the data come from post-mortem brains, the analysis 'doesn’t actually inform particularly about how these changes in gene expression may happen in life,'" Frangou told The Scientist.

Lage agrees but adds:

"This still represents a significant advance in our understanding of the molecular causes of disease, and provides a good starting point or a next wave of more targeted analyses of the underlying biology."

What's next: Geschwind says testing on a larger sample is needed, and in particular, he would like to examine closer the role of neuroglia like microglia and astrocytes. "This provides a framework, but there's a lot to do," he says.

Go deeper

State Department to set up new cyber bureau to combat hack attacks

Secretary of State Tony Blinken speaks on the challenges during an October conference in Quito, Ecuador. Photo:y Felipe Stanley/Agencia Press South/Getty Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced Monday plans for the State Department to create a new bureau of cyberspace and digital policy.

Why it matters: The establishment of the bureau and plans for a new envoy to oversee critical and emerging technology come after a series significant hack attacks and other online crimes, notably ransomware assaults on U.S. infrastructure.

Biden rejects Trump's latest executive privilege claims

Photo: Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The White House on Monday rejected two more of former President Trump's claims of executive privilege over documents that the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot requested, CNN first reported.

Why it matters: Trump's legal team is seeking to block some of the panel's requests for records by invoking executive privilege, which can allow presidents and their aides to sidestep congressional scrutiny. The Biden administration has maintained that it will evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

Amazon warehouse workers in New York file petition to hold unionization vote

Amazon workers and their supporters rally outside the National Labor Relations Board's regional office in Brooklyn, New York City, after filing a petition requesting an election to form a union. Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amazon warehouse workers in New York City filed a petition on Monday with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a vote on unionization.

Why it matters: The move comes six months after an organizing effort was defeated at Amazon's distribution center in Alabama.