The Schizophrenia Center was the first to report the normalization of a dysfunction in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia by nicotine. This is a critical finding that provides evidence for the often-suspected biological basis of extremely heavy smoking found in many people with schizophrenia. The finding is of particular clinical relevance because of the ongoing debate as to how the problem of smoking should be addressed in schizophrenics in terms of the other known deleterious effects of cigarette smoking. The Center’s works was noted by a number of sources, including the New York Times, to provide an important contribution to this debate.
The finding is more far reaching, however. Investigators in the Center discovered that the effects of nicotine are linked to the alpha-7 nicotinic receptor, which is expressed in many brain areas including the hippocampus. The gene for this receptor is located on the fifteenth chromosome in a region which is linked to the genetic transmission of schizophrenia. Thus, this finding may point the way not only to understanding why people with schizophrenia are prone to smoking, but also indicate a more basic genetic factor that is responsible for the familial transmission of the illness.
Researchers in the Center are also concerned with finding new therapeutic approaches to this illness. Several new drugs, which are selective for the alpha-7 receptor, have been evaluated, and more studies are underway. Additionally, medications that activate nicotinic receptors through other brain pathways are being tested.
The Center includes clinical facilities, laboratories for molecular biology and electrophysiology labor, and a 3T fMRI. It maintains an active brain bank collection and a collection of lymphoblasts and DNA for schizophrenic patients and their families. Clinical activates include a clinic for schizophrenic mothers and their children as well as a clozapine clinic.
The Center also strives to understand the development of schizophrenia across the lifespan. Studies of pregnant women, infants and children at risk for developing schizophrenia may lead to earlier detection and possible prevention.
Because of these accomplishments, the Center has grown with the addition of new faculty to provide expertise in molecular biology and neurophysiology. It has also expanded its clinical efforts to examine new therapeutics and to study the therapeutic and other consequences of smoking behavior in people with schizophrenia.
The Center and its members have received numerous awards because of the research, including NARSAD Senior Investigator awards, NARSAD young investigator awards, NIMH First Awards, NIMH Merit Awards, and NIDA First Awards.