Early Life Stress: An Increased Risk of Schizophrenia through Activation of the Complement Component Pathway
Schizophrenia is a debilitating psychiatric disorder with poorly understood genetic and environmental factors. An allelic variant of complement component 4 (C4), a protein first identified in innate immune response is strongly associated with schizophrenia. In the brain, activity of C4 leads to dendritic pruning, a process that may be causal in disease progression. Environmental factors, such as early life exposure to significant stressors also associate with increased risk of schizophrenia in later life. My hypothesis is that these factors do not act independently, but rather in tandem to influence disease etiology.
This hypothesis is supported by previous studies demonstrating that stress-induced elevation of glucocorticoids increases the transcription of C4. I propose that activated glucocorticoid receptors directly increase C4 protein expression as a transcription factor activator. Additionally, I propose that activated glucocorticoid receptors inhibit the expression of the transcription factor nuclear factor-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells (NF-κB), thereby leading to decreased expression of the C4 inhibitor CUB and Sushi multiple domains 1 (CSMD1).
Glucocorticoid receptors and C4 are richly expressed in the hippocampus, a region critical in memory consolidation, spatial, and declarative memory. I propose that stress-induced upregulation of C4 activity in the hippocampus promotes excessive synaptic pruning, contributing to specific deficits and hippocampal shrinkage seen in schizophrenia. Stress exposure during fetal development and adolescence likely acts through the proposed mechanisms to increase hippocampal C4 activity and subsequent schizophrenia risk. These mechanisms may reveal novel interactions between environmental and genetic risk factors in the etiology of schizophrenia through complement activation.