Exposure to toxic lead has been linked to an increased risk of developing schizophrenia in a new study of mice.
The research, conducted by scientists at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, found mice engineered with a human gene for schizophrenia and exposed to lead early life in life experienced changes in behavior and brain features consistent with the frightening mental health disorder.
The results, published online in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, suggest lead exposure and genetic risk factors may combine to cause the condition — a link that could point the way to better understanding and treating the complex gene-environment interactions that put people at risk for schizophrenia and other mental disorders.
"We're just scratching the surface," said lead researcher Tomas R. Guilarte, with the Mailman School. "We used lead in this study, but there are other environmental toxins that disrupt the function of the [brain]."
Guilarte suggested the class of chemicals in air pollution known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — PAHs — may also play a similar role in schizophrenia’s development.
"Similarly, any number of genes could be in play," Guilarte said.
While genetic factors in schizophrenia and mental disorders are well known, the effect of toxic chemicals in the environment is less understood.
"The animal model provides a way forward to answer important questions about the physiological processes underlying schizophrenia," noted Guilarte.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.
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