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£1m study probes 'nature and nurture' link in triggering mental illness

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 23, 2013

By LEUM PATRICK

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Scientists at Exeter University are to begin a £1 million research project into the study of treatments for schizophrenia.

Professor Jonathan Mill, at Exeter University Medical School, will make use of a million pound grant from the Medical Research Council in a three-year study determining the epigenetic processes and triggers of the mental illness.

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that affects one in a hundred people and can cause various psychological symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, muddled thoughts and changes in a person's usual behaviour.

Professor Mill said: "This project will look at how nature and nurture interact to cause schizophrenia, which can have a serious impact on people's lives. If we can gain a better understanding of the causes of this disorder, it could lead to more effective treatment methods."

Previous research into the mental illness suggested the causes were related to genetics, but scientists are rethinking that theory and looking more into the environmental factors that might also influence the onset of the condition.

Professor Mill's research will mainly focus on epigenetic changes which alter the structure of DNA and can in effect 'switch' on and off genes. Using state-of-the-art technology, his team will study epigenetic tags in DNA that may be affected by external factors including diet, stress, alcohol, drugs or medication.

Professor Mills added: "Unlike our DNA sequence, epigenetic processes can be highly dynamic and may be a route by which the environment can influence gene expression. This will be the first large-scale study to examine how genetic and epigenetic factors interact in the onset of schizophrenia."

The scientists at Exeter University will also collaborate with those of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. They will examine several thousand samples of blood and brain tissue from patients who had schizophrenia.

Dr Leonard Schalkwyk, from King's College Institute of Psychiatry, said: "This is a very exciting opportunity to integrate the epigenetics of schizophrenia with what we already know about the genetics of the disorder. We are working with a tremendous group of geneticists and the study holds great promise for better understanding of the disease."

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