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Nasal cells may help diagnose mental illnesses

Dr Duncan Sinclair is preparing to use neuronal cells cultivated from the nasal passage to better understand the molecular disturbances involved in disorders such as schizophrenia or depression. He hopes that, one day, we can use techniques such as this to provide more effective treatment options.

There are currently very few methods that can be applied in a clinic to reveal what is happening in a person’s brain, says Duncan. What he would like to develop is a way for clinicians to understand the cause of a disorder and prescribe a treatment designed to specifically address the problem.

“How we treat people doesn’t seem to be informed by the brain abnormalities those people possess,” he says, “partly because we have no way of identifying the neurobiological underpinnings of illness in specific individuals. I’d like for clinicians to have some way to diagnose, for example, that a person has NMDA receptor hypofunction originating in pyramidal neurons and that they’re likely to respond to an agent that modulates synaptic glutamate.”

What he is describing is targeted individualised treatments. Duncan believes we may be a long way from achieving that, but that his work now could lead us there. It began seven years ago when he first started working in Prof Cyndi Shannon Weickert’s lab as a PhD student studying the molecular stress response pathways in the brain.

After four years at NeuRA, Duncan moved to the US to continue his postdoctoral research. During this time he began to use nasal cells (also call olfactory neuroepithelial cells) and electroencephalography (EEG) to better understand the molecular pathways involved in depression and Fragile Syndrome X, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability.

Now, he is investigating whether these same measures could be used to assess treatment responsiveness in people with schizophrenia. “Neural cells found in the nose, and techniques like EEG, have the potential to shed light on brain abnormalities,” he says. “Ultimately I’d like to see these used in a clinical setting.”