Physical cause of mental illnesses possibly found says HKUST professor

Physical cause of mental illnesses possibly found says HKUST professor

Professor Zhang Mingjie’s discovery of how the DISC1 protein works on the brain could help to develop new treatments and drugs

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Professor Zhang (right) and his team found the mechanism with which the DISC1 protein causes mental illness.
Photo: K.Y. Cheng/SCMP

A Hong Kong professor has found a likely physical cause of a mental illness. Professor Zhang Mingjie from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told journalists yesterday that while it was known that a certain protein was linked to mental illness, they had been able to show exactly how it caused the illness.

The protein DISC1 has been linked to various mental illnesses including schizophrenia, a type of brain disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand what is real and cause abnormal behaviour. There are around 40,000 people with this mental disorder in Hong Kong, according to a Hospital Authority survey completed in 2015.


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Zhang said teens are more likely to suffer certain forms of mental disorders such as schizophrenia because their brain wiring networks are still developing and DISC1 could have a greater effect on them. As they grow older, their brains become more stable and they are better able to deal with mental illnesses.

While Zhang and his team’s breakthrough is a small step to understanding what can be a very serious disorder, he said the information could help to develop new treatments and drugs.

In 2001, the leading institution on mental illnesses, the University of Edinburgh, Britain, began research to find the relationship between DISC1 and mental illnesses. Zhang and his team’s work was published in the leading neuroscience journal, Neuron, on December 7.


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“To do this experiment, we couldn’t experiment on humans for ethical reasons, or mice because their brains aren’t as advanced as ours. We instead took a genetic sample from a human, and through genetic reprogramming, developed an ‘artificial brain’.

Being able to study these brain cells in detail has helped us explain the causes and make us think of possible treatments,” said Zhang.

The neuroscientist carefully explains there isn’t a cure for schizophrenia. “This is one of the biggest challenges in modern bio-medicine. I don’t think the government is doing enough in terms of education - they should fund more research. Also, I would like to encourage teenagers to be more interested in this and find a cure together,” he said.  

Edited by Nicole Moraleda

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Causes of mental illness explained

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