Abnormal vessels that undermine the structure that delivers blood into the brain could play a significant role in the development of schizophrenia, Irish-based scientists working with international colleagues have discovered.

It is the first time a molecular genetic link has been made between the so-called blood brain barrier and schizophrenia, in a finding which could lead to new treatment strategies to combat the disease suffered by 1% of people here.

The research was carried out by scientists at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin and the Department of Psychiatry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

"The concept of tailoring drugs to regulate and treat abnormal brain blood vessels is a novel treatment strategy and offers great potential to complement existing treatments of this debilitating disease," said Dr Matthew Campbell, Assistant Professor in Neurovascular Genetics at Trinity.

"While it is very well accepted that improving cardiovascular health can reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks, we now believe that drugs aimed at improving cerebrovascular health may be an additional strategy to treating brain diseases in the future."

The study focused on a chromosomal abnormality known as 22q11 deletion syndrome - a genetic problem which results in up to 60 genes missing from a small region of one of pairs of chromosome 22. 

The scientists found that changes in one of these genes in particular can have an impact on the blood brain barrier.

Among the many symptoms associated with this 22q11 deletion syndrome are heart problems, developmental delay, learning difficulties, high risk of infections, the development of specific facial features and neuropsychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia. 

Those with the syndrome are up to 20 times more likely to develop schizophrenia.

The blood brain barrier is the system of blood vessels that brings nutrients and other materials into and out of the brain.

Details of the study, carried out with scientists at Cardiff University, Stanford University, Stanley Medical Research Institute and Duke University, were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.