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UCLA researchers link genetics, brain morphology to autism, schizophrenia

By David Yaghutiel

May 31, 2017 11:21 p.m.

UCLA researchers discovered that individuals with certain brain structures and genetics are at a higher risk of autism and schizophrenia.

The researchers found that certain chromosomal abnormalities can increase individuals’ risk of schizophrenia and autism. These findings could help explain the biology behind these neuropsychiatric disorders and help researchers understand their causes at a cellular level, said Carrie Bearden, the lead author of the study.

Bearden, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, found that children missing specific sections of genetic material on chromosome 22 are at greater risk for schizophrenia.

Bearden also found that children with 22q gene duplication are at greater risk for autism and learning delays but are at a lower risk for schizophrenia.

The genetic differences also result in different brain structures, and brain anatomy can be related to psychiatric disorders, Bearden said. After running MRI scans of 143 study participants, the researchers found that the children with 22q deletion had a smaller brain surface area but thicker gray matter, while people with 22q duplication had a larger brain surface area and thinner gray matter.

Bearden added that while these genetic brain differences alone do not cause schizophrenia and autism, they will help researchers understand these disorders. She said the research team will continue to study the different brain structures and see how the participants in the study change over time.

“The next question is, ‘How does brain anatomy and brain function relate to psychiatric outcomes?’ These findings provide a snapshot,” Bearden said in a statement. “(Our follow up studies) are the puzzle pieces that are next on our list to disentangle.”

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