Mental Health Disorders Share Common Genetics

Autism, Schizophrenia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Bipolar Disorder and MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) – are often referred to as unconnected, individual problems. However, recent findings suggest they are related.

In the largest genetic study of mental illness to date, Dr. Jordan Smoller, a professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a leader of the study, analyzed genetic data from over 33,000 people with the five mental disorders and compared them with almost 28,000 people without mental disorders.

What Dr. Smoller found in the genome (the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism) could be revolutionary. Finding four areas in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cells.

The results are, said Dr. Smoller, “new evidence that may inform a move beyond descriptive syndromes in psychiatry and towards classification based on underlying causes. 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, each one of them, by themselves, still accounts for a small amount of risk. The fascinating thing is there might be such variants that cross our clinically-distinct syndromes.”

Dr. Smoller and colleagues also found that genetic factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most in common. Where, interestingly, autism – a disorder that usually surfaces in childhood, overlapped with both disorders.

“Autism was once known as childhood schizophrenia, and the two disorders were not clearly differentiated until the 1970s,” said Dr. Smoller

The findings may help to reclassify mental health disorders on the basis of cause rather than collections of descriptive symptoms. Ultimately helping to shape alternative ways of treating them.

“Ultimately this kind of research will give us a return in terms of social attitudes toward brain-based illnesses, if you can understand an illness process, it does not seem so mysterious and terrifying.” said Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.


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