New Study Finds Mental Illnesses Share the Same Genes

Posted on April 2nd, 2013

share-genes“This is a corner piece of the jigsaw puzzle.”

An international study published in the journal Lancet in February 2013 reveals an important and exciting discovery for the mental health field.  It showed that there is a genetic link between five seemingly disparate mental health conditions – bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, ADHD (attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder), autism and schizophrenia. 

Scientists have long tried to understand the underlying causes of these and other serious psychiatric disorders.  Experts have long believed that most conditions are caused by a combination of genetics, biological factors, and environmental factors.  This study sheds new light on the genetic component.

The research, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is the largest of its kind, and the implications for diagnosis and treatment are significant. Until now, these disorders have been regarded as distinct, separate psychiatric problems. The new study, however, suggests that they’re all genetically related.  Dr. Jordan Smoller, one of the head researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, stated, “These disorders that we thought of as quite different may not have such sharp boundaries.”

Currently, psychiatric disorders are primarily diagnosed based upon a collection of symptoms, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Patients (or their families) describe the symptoms to the person doing the evaluation, and that’s how a diagnosis is made.  It’s not an exact science. Unlike most physical health problems, like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, there aren’t any lab tests or scans that can be used to make a diagnosis.  This study opens the door to new possibilities in terms of how diagnoses may eventually be made for various disorders.

The findings may also lead to new, more biologically-based ways to treat these and other psychiatric disorders.  The director of the NIMH’s Division of Adult Translational Research and Treatment Development, Dr. Bruce Cuthbert, noted that this research puts us on the path toward targeting the “actual physiological mechanisms.”

“We can really start to understand the biology instead of having to guess at it,” Cuthbert said.

The study, which involved researchers in 19 countries, looked at the genomes of over 61,000 individuals. A genome is all the genetic or hereditary information of a particular organism.  They discovered variation in the genetic code that connected these five psychiatric disorders.

Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, hopes the findings may help dispel some of the stigma that still surrounds psychiatric diseases.

“Ultimately this kind of research will give us a return in terms of social attitudes toward brain-based illness,” Duckworth told NBC news. “If you can understand an illness process, it doesn’t seem so mysterious and terrifying.”

Duckworth said every psychiatrist knows of patients whose symptoms don’t clearly meet the definition of any one disease, and he noted that Sigmund Freud defined schizophrenia as a group of diseases. “This is a corner piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” he said.

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