August 20, 2019 | 81° F

Rutgers researchers identify additional genes linked to Tourette Syndrome


Rutgers University scientists and research partners worldwide have identified genes that may be linked to Tourette syndrome (TS) — a neuropsychiatric condition characterized by involuntary motor and vocal movements — and this discovery can potentially lead to better treatments for the syndrome.

Statistics from the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome (NJCTS) website indicate that about one out of every 100 individuals show signs of this syndrome, which includes symptoms such as repetitive jaw movements, arm jerking, grunting and shouting. People with this condition also tend to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and ADHD, according to the site.

“While TS runs in families and previous studies suggested genetic factors are involved, the specific genetic architecture has remained a mystery,” said Gary Heiman, an associate professor in the Department of Genetics and director of the undergraduate Genetic Counseling Certificate Program (GCCP) at Rutgers University.

Heiman is the investigator and director of the data coordinating center of Tourette International Collaborative Genetics Study (TIC Genetics), an international collaboration of scientists and clinicians who specialize in TS.

Alongside other distinguished Rutgers faculty including genetics professors Jay Tischfield, Jinchuan Xing and the international TIC genetics group, Heiman helped to identify four genes that are linked to Tourette syndrome. Their work was published on May 3, 2017, in Neuron, a peer-reviewed neuroscience journal.

Heiman explained that the National Institute of Mental Health and NJCTS helped to fund the study, which involved analyses of families in which the child was affected with Tourette syndrome while neither parent was affected.

According to the article in Neuron, the resulting genetic analyses showed that variants of the gene WWC1, which is involved in memory and brain development, were associated with TS. The other three damaged genes found to be related to the disorder are involved in brain circuitry and gene.

Previous studies held the assumption that one gene caused the disorder, but Heiman said it is now known that it can be caused by many different genes.

“This is a very innovative discovery. Many people suffer from Tourette syndrome and the possibility of finding answers to some of the most disabling disorders is unbelievable. With the new upcoming advances in genetics and biotechnology, it seems that new therapy for these types of illnesses is within our grasp,” said Lindsey Frankel, a junior in the School of Nursing at Rutgers—New Brunswick. 

According to Heiman, the biggest challenge of their study was recruiting enough families, diagnosing each member of the family and sequencing each participator.

Heiman and other TIC genetics researchers are collaborating to find treatments that work on biological pathways and networks, rather than specific genes because each family will have mutations in different genes.

According to the Tourette Association of America website, current treatments for Tourette syndrome include drug therapy, which can help to alleviate tics and symptoms of ADHD and OCD.

“Habit Reversal Training is also implemented by psychologists to help teach the child or adult how to anticipate tics or to substitute socially unacceptable tics for ones that are more socially acceptable,” said Faith Rice, executive director of NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome.

Rice founded NJCTS in 2004 to provide support and services to families as well as to create awareness and acceptance of the Tourette’s population.

In partnership with NJCTS, the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (GSAPP) in Piscataway offers habit reversal training as a method of behavioral therapy, she mentioned. Rutgers University also is home to the first sharing cell and DNA repository in the world for Tourette's. 

According to the NJCTS website, NJCTS offers services for kids and families, outreach and training for teachers and doctors and support for collaborative research. The NJCTS Tim Howard Leadership Academy for teens with Tourette’s takes place during the summer on Busch campus.

New Jersey native Tim Howard, who has Tourette syndrome, is the goalie for the U.S. soccer team, and Rice explained that his summer academy helps to teach kids with Tourette’s how to deal with difficulties and be successful with their disorder.

“With more funds, we hope to continue this research. It is very exciting to get these findings and to continue moving ahead because we are just beginning to understand this mysterious disorder,” Heiman said.

Heiman mentioned that the research team is currently in the process of recruiting more families to continue sequencing genes related to Tourette syndrome and to understand how these mutations cause the symptoms of TS as well as the associated disorders like OCD and ADHD.

Heiman also said that techniques for future studies include using induced pluripotent stem cells and Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), a form of genome editing technology.

“Our partnerships involving Tourette syndrome have made New Jersey the national leader in delivering services and research for the disorder, which shows the power of partnership and the power of collaboration,” Rice said.

There is now a better understanding of what causes Tourette syndrome because of this research, and scientists are a step closer to finding better treatments and therapies for them.

Brittany Friedson

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