Dr Bing Lang (University of Aberdeen) received a Research Incentive Grant in March 2015, along with Professor Colin McCaig (University of Aberdeen) and a team from Tongji University, Shanghai, have discovered new evidence strengthening the link between a previously misunderstood gene and major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and autism.
The grant titled "Relationship study between a novel gene, brain development and the risk of schizophrenia" used cutting-edge techniques to ’turn off’ ULK4 in selected subsets of stem cells in the mouse brain. They then observed that the offspring of these stem cells turned up in the wrong places, become ’lost’ and ’communicated less’ with neighbouring nerve cells.
These problems were rectified fully when the ULK4 gene was ‘turned back on’.
They conclude that ULK4 plays an essential role in normal brain development and when defective, the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia is increased.
A 2014 study by the same team looked at five major groups of patients and identified that a mutation of the gene ULK4 was found far more frequently in patients with schizophrenia. The same mutation was also found in some people with bipolar disorder, depression and autism. Before this work, ULK4 had previously been associated with hypertension but never before with mental health disorders.
Dr Bing Lang, said: “Schizophrenia and other mental health disorders are multi-faceted and it is extremely complicated to identify which genes, in combination with other environmental factors, contribute to people developing the condition.
This latest study supports our highly novel findings that the ULK4 gene plays a role in normal brain development, and that a mutation in the gene contributes to the risk of several neurodevelopmental disorders.
We hope that by fully understanding the roles of ULK4 in schizophrenia, this will pave the way for the development of new drugs to treat this devastating condition."
The research was funded by the Carnegie Trust, Tenovus Scotland, British Council China, Chinese Scholarship Council, National Natural Science Foundation of China, the University of Aberdeen and Tongji University.
A full article in Scientific Reports "Control of cortex development by ULK4, a rare risk gene for mental disorders including schizophrenia" has been published.