Advances in genetics may lead to eradicating schizophrenia. Or future schizophrenics.
A recent headline in the Washington Post proclaimed "Scientists open the 'black box' of schizophrenia with dramatic genetic discovery."
While the headline may be a little hyped, what actually happened has the potential to be, as the saying goes, a "game changer" — only not in the way the article would have us believe.
As the Post reports, "scientists have pinned down a molecular process in the brain that helps to trigger schizophrenia." An article published in the prestigious journal Nature describes the discovery of a "genetic pathway [that] probably reveals what goes wrong neurologically in a young person diagnosed with the devastating disorder."
Now, it's important to be clear on what schizophrenia is, especially since we use "schizophrenic" to mean being of two minds on a subject. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, "Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality."
Symptoms of schizophrenia can include hallucinations, delusions, "unusual or dysfunctional ways of thinking," and "agitated body movements." As NIMH puts it, schizophrenia can be "very disabling."
The researchers behind the article in Nature found that "a person's risk of schizophrenia is dramatically increased if they inherit variants of a gene important to 'synaptic pruning' — the healthy reduction during adolescence of brain cell connections that are no longer needed."
Specifically, the variant gene is called C4, previously associated with immune functions, and is located on chromosome 6.
To put it mildly, scientists are excited about the findings. Eric Lander of MIT's and Harvard's Broad Institute said that the study takes "what has been a black box . . . and [lets] us peek inside for the first time. And that is amazingly consequential."
Now that we've peeked inside the "black box," what about a cure? That news is not as exciting. Lander's colleague Steven Hyman told the Post that "it will be decades before a true cure is found."
And in the meantime? Given the devastation wrought by schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, it feels bad to rain on a parade of good news, but caution is in order.
If the findings hold up, schizophrenia will join the list of illnesses whose cause is known to us and for which we do not have a cure. And it will join a list of illnesses whose genetic causes are known to us, for which we also do not have cures.
That leaves the $64,000 question: What do we do with that knowledge?
The 1997 film "Gattaca," which Chuck Colson loved, suggests one very strong possibility: You eradicate things like schizophrenia by preventing people with the variant C4 gene from ever being born.
In the film, prevention took the form of genetic screening and selective embryo implantation. Off the screen, it will likely take the form of genetic screening and abortion — especially for families with a history of schizophrenia.
This is what has happened in the case of people with Down syndrome, where between 75 and 90-plus percent of cases diagnosed in utero end in abortion. There is no reason to expect that an elevated risk for schizophrenia or any other potential disability diagnosed in utero would be treated any differently.
That's why caution is in order. Because, given the culture of death, that black box may, in fact, be Pandora's box for millions of unborn children. Please pray that doesn't happen.