Endophenotypes in Schizophrenia: Digging Deeper to Identify Genetic Mechanisms

J Psychiatr Brain Sci. 2019;4(2):e190005. doi: 10.20900/jpbs.20190005. Epub 2019 Mar 13.


Schizophrenia (SZ) is a severe psychotic disorder that is highly heritable and common in the general population. The genetic heterogeneity of SZ is substantial, with contributions from common, rare, and de novo variants, in addition to environmental factors. Large genome-wide association studies have detected many variants that are associated with SZ, yet the pathways by which these variants influence risk remain largely unknown. SZ is also clinically heterogeneous, with patients exhibiting a broad range of deficits and symptom severity that vary over the course of illness and treatment, which has complicated efforts to identify risk variants. However, the underlying brain dysfunction forms a more stable trait marker that quantitative neurocognitive and neurophysiological endophenotypes may be able to objectively measure. These endophenotypes are less likely to be heterogeneous than the disorder and provide a neurobiological context to detect risk variants and underlying pathways among genes associated with SZ diagnosis. Furthermore, many endophenotypes are translational into animal model systems, allowing for direct evaluation of the neural circuit dysfunctions and neurobiological substrates. We review a selection of the most promising SZ endophenotypes, including prepulse inhibition, mismatch negativity, oculomotor antisaccade, letter-number sequencing, and continuous performance tests. We also highlight recent findings from large consortia that suggest the potential role of genes, particularly in the neuregulin and glutamate pathways, in several of these endophenotypes. Although endophenotypes require additional time and effort to assess, the insight into the underlying neurobiology that they provide may ultimately reveal the underlying genetic architecture for SZ and suggest novel treatment targets.

Keywords: endophenotype; genetics; neurocognition; neurophysiology; schizophrenia.