Written by Dr Elisabeth Frank
Schizophrenia Research Institute (SRI)
School of Health Sciences, University of Wollongong
“Schizophrenia is a devastating brain disorder that affects up to 1 per cent of the population worldwide…” is a frequently used statistic in publications on schizophrenia research. Whereas worldwide seems far away, it is a fact for our community; over 2,000 people in Wollongong alone have schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a chronic psychiatric disease, which has its onset mostly in the late teens or early twenties. It significantly impairs normal brain function; the neurodevelopmental hypothesis of schizophrenia assumes that it is a consequence of disrupted brain development in early-life.
Clinically, schizophrenia is divided into positive, negative and cognitive symptoms. What this means for patients is paranoia, hallucinations, a retreat from reality; total social isolation is often the result. The emotional burden on sufferers, families and friends is considerable, and the disease is estimated to cost the Australian community $2 billion every year.
There is currently no cure for schizophrenia; and though there are antipsychotic drugs, they are insufficient. Patients are medicated at high doses over their entire lifetime and the drugs cause serious immediate and long term side effects.
For these reasons and more, research into schizophrenia and better treatments is critical.
At UOW, several centres and researchers from various scientific fields are engaged in cooperative research on schizophrenia. Many of the basic and clinical researchers are found under the roof of the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) and are associated with the Schizophrenia Research Institute (SRI).
The Centre for Translational Neuroscience (CTN) has a special focus on schizophrenia. Under the lead of Professor Xu-Feng Huang and based at IHMRI, the majority of the 30 research fellows and research students are working to uncover the neurochemical and genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia as well as neurophysiological consequences of antipsychotic drug treatment.
Studying samples from patients in Australia and China, human post-mortem brain tissue and rodent models, we use sophisticated state-of-the-art biochemical, genetic and intracranial techniques to explore neurochemical mechanisms of the disease in vitro and in vivo.
For example, the NHMRC-funded research team of Professor Xu-Feng Huang, Dr Kelly Newell and Dr Teresa Du Bois examines the glutamatergic NMDA receptor, since it is highly relevant for adequate neurodevelopment. Our second neurodevelopmental target and studied in its interaction with the NMDA receptor is the neuronal growth factor Neuregulin-1, which was identified in human genetic population studies as a major candidate for schizophrenia risk.
In a NHMRC-funded linkage project, Dr Mei Han and Dr Francesca Fernandez are screening schizophrenia patients in Beijing for mutations in this gene in correlation with symptomatology and neurochemistry. By comparing this to a Neuregulin-1 model at UOW, my SRI-funded research team is making discoveries in the novel field of neuroimmunology, which has only recently been unravelled for its aetiological relevance for schizophrenia.
The severe side effects of antipsychotic drugs are also being investigated at the CTN. Currently available drugs have limited efficacy and are associated with a range of side effects. The NHMRC-funded research team of Professor Xu-Feng Huang investigates antipsychotic action on neurochemistry in relation to side effects like weight gain and metabolic disorders. The NHMRC-funded research team led by Dr Chao Deng is studying the functional selectivity of antipsychotics in treating schizophrenia. These projects are expected to lead to better treatments for schizophrenia patients with reduced side effects.
The schizophrenia research projects underway at our centre complement and collaborate with many others at the University. Working with researchers from IHMRI, the School’s of Health Sciences, Psychology and Nursing, the Graduate School of Medicine, the Illawarra Institute for Mental Health (iiMH) and the Brain and Behaviour Research Institute (BBRI), we further our understanding of disease development and treatment through combined approaches.
We have close collaborations with the School of Psychology, where Dr Nadja Solowij, Dr Emma Barkus and several collaborators have attracted major funding for their research on the role of cannabis in the risk for schizophrenia. In a new collaborative project, an Illawarra schizophrenia patient cohort has been established. Patients will be studied by clinical and basic researchers from several schools and centres from a psychiatric, psychological, drug-compliance, dietetic, genetic, lipidomic, neurochemical and neuroimmune perspective. This will not only be a unique project due to its inter-disciplinary approach, but has the potential to directly feedback to patients and carers in the Illawarra community. Determining factors that predict a good treatment response as well as indicators for side effects of drug treatment will allow us to improve the choice of drugs used as well as to better monitor indicators for, and therefore potentially prevent, deleterious side effects in our patients.
Linking as well with researchers from the School of Chemistry and Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI), and having access to their highly developed tools, gives us the opportunity to explore novel ways to target discovery, drug development and drug application. This is additionally supported by our cooperations with pharmaceutical companies.
Our investment into schizophrenia does not end at the lab bench. In addition to our scientific investigations, our researchers also engage in community awareness and education around schizophrenia. With the support of IHRMI and SRI, our researchers and students have organised and contributed to a Schizophrenia Awareness Event and Mental Health Expo; and the Illawarra Mental Health Round Table which brings together major stakeholders of schizophrenia research and care in the Illawarra.
Schizophrenia is a devastating disease, but many researchers at UOW are working actively together to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia, and finally help patients and carers lead a better life.