Schizophrenia is a devastating psychiatric disease, which affects one percent of the world’s population. In addition to the illness-defining psychotic symptoms, cognitive abnormalities are core features of the disease and a major reason for the inability of individuals with the disorder to lead productive and fulfilling lives. Although the etiology of schizophrenia has been traced to abnormal early brain development, the disease remains a mystery, and current treatments are limited.
The central hypothesis of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (MPRC) Silvio O. Conte Center is that the cognitive deficits afflicting people with schizophrenia are causally related to an increase in the brain levels of kynurenic acid, a major breakdown product of the dietary amino acid tryptophan. This premise is based on a series of investigations by the MPRC-based Center Director, Dr. Robert Schwarcz, and his collaborators, who pioneered the study of the neurobiology of kynurenic acid and its role in schizophrenia.
The five-year project, which was initiated in May, 2014, is a collaborative venture between investigators at the MPRC, other members of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and scientists at the University of Southern California. The Center is structured into four complementary and synergistic projects, ranging from preclinical research to studies in healthy human subjects and in individuals with schizophrenia. Together, the studies in animals and humans are designed to 1) explore how elevations in brain kynurenic acid levels lead to cognitive abnormalities; and 2) determine whether pharmacological interventions designed to reduce brain kynurenic acid levels are a useful approach to combat cognitive impairments in individuals with schizophrenia.