Commentary |

Maternal Famine, De Novo Mutations, and Schizophrenia

Jack M. McClellan, MD; Ezra Susser, MD, DrPH; Mary-Claire King, PhD
JAMA. 2006;296(5):582-584. doi:10.1001/jama.296.5.582.
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Schizophrenia is a debilitating neuropsychiatric disorder that likely stems from multiple genetic and environmental factors.1 Identifying molecular mechanisms underlying schizophrenia offers the promise of improved treatment and prevention strategies. Finding culprit mutations and the genes that harbor them is therefore one of the great challenges of human genomics.

Studying populations who survived in utero exposure to maternal starvation may reveal clues regarding the genetic bases of schizophrenia. For example, epidemiological investigations of 2 famines in the 20th century—the Nazi-induced 1944-1945 Dutch Hunger Winter2 and the Chinese famine of 1959-1961 following the failure of the Great Leap Forward3—demonstrated an increased risk for schizophrenia among offspring conceived in famine conditions. A possible molecular basis for this risk may be the occurrence of new mutations in genes critical for brain development. Furthermore, folate deficiency, which could occur in famine, may be a mediator of this risk by impairing capacity for DNA repair.

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