A Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research study has advanced understanding of the role Ribonucleic Acid (RNA), plays in the development of the brain’s dopamine system.

The dopamine system distributes dopamine (a neurotransmitter) around the brain and body for important functions like executive thinking, cognition, feelings of reward and pleasure, and voluntary motor movements.

Early changes in dopamine system development are thought to be associated with neurodevelopmental and mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

Study leader, Dr Xiaoying Cui from QCMHR’s Developmental Neurobiology Research Stream (based at the Queensland Brain Institute), said the study had unlocked a piece of the puzzle in understanding how a particular RNA (a molecule like DNA) helps neurons in the dopamine system to develop and mature.

“Our study investigated the role of a particular non-long coding RNA known as HOTAIRM1 in early dopamine neuron development,” Dr Cui said.

“A complex web of factors dictates how neuron cells in the dopamine system develop and mature, and a growing body of evidence suggests that non-coding RNA’s may have a role to play in regulating this process.

“Our results showed that a reduction in HOTAIRM1 RNA disrupted the development of neurons in the dopamine system, particularly their ability to differentiate into more specific cells.

“This confirmed our theory that HOTAIRM1 has an important functional role to play in the development of neurons in the dopamine system.

“Understanding the role of long-coding RNA’s like HOTAIRM1 in the development of the dopamine system may one day lead to therapies that can prevent brain and mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia.”

The team will now undertake further studies to determine if permanent dysfunction of the dopamine system is caused by dopamine neurons being disrupted as they mature in the developing brain.

They will use mice models to determine whether this disruption produces schizophrenia-like behaviour in adult mice.

Study outcomes will identify specific links between non long coding RNAs and schizophrenia.

The study was published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in July 2021.

Contact: Dr Xiaoying Cui, email x.cui@uq.edu.au

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