Schizophrenia, a debilitating disease that disrupts the lives of approximately one percent of the entire world, has been associated with more than 100 genes identified in a growing litany of studies.

But one of those genes has shown it plays a particularly crucial role in fetal development – and may be laying foundation for the psychiatric condition that only appears years later, in adolescence or young adulthood, according to a new study led by researchers from Penn State.

“Our work uncovered a novel mechanistic link of a schizophrenia risk gene to neurodevelopment and translational control,” they conclude, in the latest Molecular Psychiatry. “The interactome-driven approach here is an effective way for translating genome-wide association findings into novel biological insights of human diseases.”

The gene they identified is ZNF804A, one of nine genes that are transcriptional factors used to translate RNA to proteins.

The researchers looked at a homolog in mouse brains: the genes ZFP804A. The scientists halted the expression of the gene, and found it causes problems with neuronal migration, development of the neuronal stem cells into other cells, and overall creation of structures within the rodent brain – a finding which likely translates to the human brain.

The gene seems to start a chain reaction of problems that only show up in life, with the maturation of the brain, they add.

Schizophrenic-like traits have been shown in rats, due to disruption of brain development at the earliest stages of life, leading to aberrations in the size of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

“Although schizophrenia symptoms appear in adulthood, genetic mutations affecting early embryonic development could embed risk for future behavioral changes.”

Yingwei Mao, the lead author from Penn State, said in a school statement that the gene in humans could be the genesis of psychiatric problems.

“ZNF804A is critical to regulating proliferation and migration,” said Mao. “Disturbances to these processes may cause neuronal stem cells to develop into different type of cells or may cause neurons to migrate to different locations in the brain, changing neuronal circuitry and potentially leading to behavioral disorders like schizophrenia.”