Why study autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy together?
Last month we launched our new MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at King’s College London. The centre will be taking a wide-angle look at three very different, but linked, disorders: autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. We spoke to its Director, Professor Oscar Marín, to find out more.
What do these disorders have in common?
Autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia and many forms of epilepsy are neurodevelopmental disorders. In other words, they all happen when the brain develops in a non-typical way. Changes in brain development, even when subtle, have long-term consequences on brain function.
Two people with any one of these disorders might have very different experiences. How can you study all of them at once? Aren’t they very different?
Yes, they are different. There are many factors that are probably unique to each one of these conditions. However, they are all linked by genetics. We have learned that there is an overlap between genes that may lead to autism in some people and schizophrenia in others. This information suggests that these genes might lead to similar changes in brain development in different disorders.
These findings confirm what we already know about the overlap in the clinical symptoms of different conditions. For example epilepsy is very common among people with autism spectrum disorders. Between 20 and 40 per cent of people with autism spectrum disorders also have epilepsy, compared to 1 per cent of the general population. There is also increasing evidence suggesting that changes in some of the same genes controlling brain development may lead to different symptoms in different people.
Are there other disorders that could be linked to neurodevelopment?
Yes, there are. We are focusing on these areas because we already have evidence that these three disorders could have aspects in common. But we would eventually like to expand to other clinical conditions that are also caused by changes in brain development.
Why are you interested in this area?
I want to find out how your genes and environment alter the trajectory of your brain development. I’m also fascinated by the brain’s extraordinary capacity to adapt to these factors. My laboratory focuses on understanding how a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex develops and how genetic variations alter this process. I very much hope that a better understanding of this process will help us to treat and perhaps even prevent psychiatric disorders in the future.
What will the new centre do that we’ve not been able to do before?
We plan to look at a wide range of disorders from a broader perspective, combining our expertise in very different areas. I will work hard to push our scientists away from their comfort zone – their specialist area – so that we can study these disorders from new angles, looking for common mechanisms and the unique features that distinguish them.
Who will be involved in the studies?
We’ll be working with several large cohorts of patients with epilepsy, autism spectrum disorders and psychotic disorders, as well as people at risk of developing these conditions.
What kind of studies will you be doing?
We’ll be doing clinical studies – with people who have a disorder or are at risk of developing one – and animal studies. Our clinical studies will focus on identifying physical changes in the brain linked to these disorders. Our animal studies will involve mice and zebrafish. We will also do experiments with neurons that we can make in the lab by using stem cells taken from the patients. These will allow us to explore the different processes that underlie these disorders.
What’s the first step for the centre?
We want to understand these disorders from every angle. So our first step is to get all the disciplines working together through projects led by PhD students with two supervisors, each from different disciplines; for example a clinical research specialist and a basic research scientist.
We need to bring together neuroscientists and different clinical specialists: neonatologists, neurologists, and clinical psychiatrists. Basic and clinical scientists work in different spheres, but our research programmes will integrate scientists with different backgrounds under the same umbrella.
What are your hopes for research at the new MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders?
I hope that we will have a much clearer understanding of exactly how neurodevelopmental disorders develop within the next 10 years. This should open new avenues for us to develop effective treatments.