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Stephen R. Covey

Genetic Factors in Mental Illness

February 28th, 2013

800px-Detailaufnahme_Weihnachtsstern_-_großFrom The Boston Globe today:

An international consortium, including researchers from Boston, has for the first time discovered a handful of common genetic underpinnings for five distinct psychiatric illnesses, providing evidence that disorders such as schizophrenia and autism overlap — and may share fundamental biological causes.

The study is one step in an ambitious effort that could ultimately redraw or blur the boundary lines between psychiatric illnesses, based on a precise understanding of the underlying biology.

Over the past five years, many teams have focused on analyzing genetic variants — spots in the genome that commonly differ among people — to pinpoint the risk factors for disorders. In the new work, published Wednesday in The Lancet, researchers examined genetic data from people with autism, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, and found clues that genes involved in signaling within the brain may go awry in a broad set of psychiatric illnesses.

“This is the first time we’ve seen specific genetic variants that seem to confer risk across traditional boundaries, to a broad range of child- and adult-onset disorders,” said Dr. Jordan Smoller, a professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a leader of the study. “Each one of them, by themselves, still accounts for a small amount of the risk. The fascinating thing is there might be such variants that cross our clinically distinct syndromes.”

Smoller and colleagues analyzed genetic data from more than 33,000 people with the five disorders and compared them with nearly 28,000 people without mental illness. They found four spots in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cells.

They also found that genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap. Interestingly, autism, a disorder that emerges in childhood, overlapped with both disorders, which typically emerge in adulthood.

Those are tantalizing clues for scientists, who now have a range of starting points for teasing out more about the shared biological basis of these psychiatric diseases. What the new study cannot do is provide a way of predicting mental illness with a gene test. All the genetic variants highlighted are very weak risk factors.

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10 Responses to “Genetic Factors in Mental Illness”

  1. I would like to raise an issue with the way this is presented because I feel something very complex is taken for granted. I feel it is presented in away that denies the subjectivity of human experience and ignores the relatively modern perspective on certain aspects of human experience that classify them as mental diseases. In some cultures and throughout the course of human history what we now refer to as mental illness was understood and framed positively. In such instances, those experiencing these phenomenon experienced them more positively. It is also the case that psychiatric diagnosis are rocketing. As are new “diseases” and classifications. It is also the case that psychiatry is a multi million dollar industry and new medications come on the market to treat each of these new classifications or to better treat existing ones. Although statistically, no one is actually getting better and numbers of both chronic and new diagnosis are increasing. Now there could be multiple ways of considering this. One might be to suggest that mental illness is increasing due to modern factors. One might be to suggest that we use different language to describe certain phenomenon and that this subsequently effects experience. Another might be to suggest a combination between the two. However, I would be extremely cautious of this kind of reductionism in discussing mental well being. There are invariably genetic markers for ALL aspects of human experience, but I like to be very mindful of the wider context and to acknowledge the power of labels.

  2. Yes. ‘Mental illness’ diagnoses have long been problematical for many reasons. I’d recommend websites and publications associated with the Critical Psychiatry movement, post-psychiatry, and Asylum magazine. There’s a long recent history of user-survivor movement critiques of ‘schizophrenia’ etc. I’d be very cautious about these latest claims. Many of the causes of, and remedies for, distress and madness are social, and well understood.

  3. Me mindful not only of the limitations of such studies, but their implications as well. Increasing the size and scope of the DSM (using US terminology) does not necessarily bode well for those being diagnosed.

    • Yes, the implications, which further feed into the pathologisation of the human experience and the ever decreasing range of “normal”. If mental disease really is so widespread as to effect 1 in 4, then perhaps we need to start considering it *as* normal. Part of the human experience rather than something “other” and requiring medication. Of course, some peoples lives have been greatly improved via some psychotropic medications, but in the past decade medication has become a treatment for unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life. Long term, this mindset is confirming reliance and belief in the pathology of difficult human emotions, rather than seeing them as the normal ebb and flow. What’s more it deflects us from examining what makes us unhappy and dissatisfied.

  4. One very important consideration that seems to have been missed in all the media coverage I have come across of this report is that, even though there is a genetic factor, it can only signify a predisposition; nothing more. There seems to be a bias towards finding biochemical evidence for mental illnesses, as if this somehow makes them more valid. Of course, a biochemical cause can be ‘fixed’ with a biochemical (allopathic) treatment – patentable, lucrative and easy to measure. Meanwhile, the social and cultural factors which might cause this predisposition to manifest as illness are ignored – they’re expensive, tricky to measure and not obviously profitable.

    I agree with Hannah, too – pathologising emotional and mental distress is not necessarily the best way to bring about a cure. I think that genetic predispositions such as these might well bring particular gifts and abilities, as well as illnesses.

    Cultural biases and assumptions about mental illness are written into the hypotheses on which these studies are founded. Scientific research is important, but it is equally important to appreciate its limitations.

  5. I’m deep down the rabbit hole learning about this stuff because my Lyme disease has ‘turned on’ some of the sort of genes they are talking about. It’s not that these genes, once switched on, necessarily cause you to instantly be sick, but that they can cause imbalances in nutrients and also an inability to clear toxins or parasites/viruses/bacteria like other people, so then these things build up and cause you problems, both physical and mental. People are getting good results treating things like anxiety, depression and autism by learning what their genes may be and then finding ways around chemical pathway blockages. It’s cool and I think it’s the future of sickness prevention, and I don’t think it necessarily separates us out. We’ve all got some ‘dodgy’ genes in there and all of us can have them turned on by a stressful event or illness. No-one is immune. What it can do is help us to cope and be happier in our lives once htis has happened, which I think it is happening to more and more people as toxins and stress increase in our daily environment. Dr Amy Yasko is using this stuff right now. She is pretty cluey and has helped a lot of people including me.

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