Schizophrenia is a cypher to science. It is an inherited disease, yet it does not go strictly from one generation to the next. It may skip a few. There are even arguments that schizophrenia may be caused by environmental instead of genetic factors. But one thing most schizophrenics have in common:

They smoke. A lot.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo believe that schizophrenics smoke because nicotine is a form of self-medication, and that by working with smoking cessation drugs (nicotinic agonists, they call that), doctors may be able to help repair cognitive functions of the sufferers.

How is this possible? They believe they have discovered a single genetic pathway, or series of DNA segments that work together, that controls as many as 160 different traits, all associated with the disease:

 “How is it possible to have 100 patients with schizophrenia and each one has a different genetic mutation that causes the disorder?” asks Stachowiak. “It’s possible because INFS integrates diverse neurological signals that control the development of embryonic stem cell and neural progenitor cells, and links pathways involving schizophrenia-linked genes.

“INFS functions like the conductor of an orchestra,” explains Stachowiak. “It doesn’t matter which musician is playing the wrong note, it brings down the conductor and the whole orchestra. With INFS, we propose that when there is an alteration or mutation in a single schizophrenia-linked gene, the INFS system that controls development of the whole brain becomes untuned. That’s how schizophrenia develops.”

The link between smoking and schizophrenia is well-established. Because there is such a strong, common link between smoking and this otherwise disparately symptomatic disease, researchers believe that nicotine and nicotinic agonists may be affecting this pathway.

Blah, blah, blah. I like my stoically private nature. It helps me think.

That may seem true, but research out of the University of Buffalo may prove otherwise. A new study shows that social isolation arrests the healthy development of myelin in the brains of mice, both reinforcing the behavior and also leaving the loner open to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

The brain is essentially made up of two types of “matter,” white and grey. You’ve heard the phrase “grey matter” in the past, when discussing how smart a person is. White matter is made up of myelin sheaths around brain cells, astrocytes that run between cells and more. Up until recently, the white matter of the brain has largely been ignored as unimportant.

Research into neuroplasticity – the relatively novel scientific concept that the brain actually regrows and rewires brain cells according to the needs of the moment – is showing that not only grey matter but white matter as well is affected by changes in behavior.

Mice were isolated in a lab for a period of time to observe the changes in their brain structures. The scientists found that the isolated mice, when put in contact with a normally-socialized mouse, actively avoided contact. That is: the mice who would normally be hugely social creatures suddenly became intentional introverts when given a period of forced isolation.

Even more interesting: studying the brains of the isolated mice, they discovered that myelin production had been slowed down. Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds brain cells, acting as insulators and preventing the signals (which are just electro-chemical jolts, you might say) from being leached out of the brain cell and away from their intended targets. Lack of myelin has been blamed for a host of neurological disorders.

The good news is that none of the effects of neuroplasticity are irreversible. The scientists in this particular study showed that reintegrating the mice into their social communities reversed all the negative trends of isolation.

So, as my parents used to say, “get out there and blow the stink off!” Stop watching The Secret of NIHM and heed the lesson of actual lab rats. That smell might just be your brain mouldering.

People with ADHD may have a new part of their brain to blame. Neurons used to take much of the blame for mental disorders. Researchers believed that when neurons stopped doing their job mental disorders occurred. But now it seems there may be another cell in the mix – astrocytes.

Researchers used to consider astrocytes the lowly housekeepers of the brain. But now they’re finding that astrocytes are a much more crucial part to brain activity, may perhaps even play a factor in the development of mental disorders including epilepsy, schizophrenia, and ADD.

Maiken Nedergaard, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Rochester, and colleagues ran a study exploring astrocytes role in the brain. Nedergaard’s team used advanced lasers to look at astrocytes in rats and mice.

Researchers used to think that astrocytes simply absorbed Potassium so that the neurons could do their job. A neuron’s main job is communicating through electrochemical signals. Astrocytes had long been considered “brain glue,” whose main component was giving the brain structure.

Now astrocytes can be thought of more as moms. They clean and make sure neurons are doing everything they need to. It is when astrocytes do not do their job properly that mental disorders can develop. When an astrocyte isn’t doing it’s job of absorbing potassium, neurons start to fire erratically. When neurons fire erratically, they cannot communicate effectively with the rest of the brain.

Knowing that astrocytes are a cause behind some mental disorders, can help researchers develop better treatment. When a definitive biological cause is behind a disorder medicines can be developed to treat it.