Posted on December 12, 2013 in Mental Health

Five Mental Illnesses Genetically Linked

Determining the genes that contribute to illnesses is an important step in understanding how disease begins, the causes, how to treat them and how to prevent them. That is no different, whether the disease under investigation is a physical or a mental illness.

Mental health disorders are not always straightforward; they are caused by a range of factors and each individual case is different. There are certainly genetic components, but environmental circumstances also play a role in figuring out how these diseases develop. To get a full picture, researchers need to know the genes behind mental illness.

Recent research has uncovered genes that are related to the development of conditions like autism, depression and bipolar disorder. Now, researchers are even finding genetic connections between many mental illnesses. This new information will help experts better classify mental disorders, understand them, and come up with ways to treat and prevent them.

Mental Health and Genes

Your genes are the codes inside your body’s cells that tell them how to function. While, generally speaking, we all share the same basic set of codes, each person has differences that makes  s/he unique. Sometimes these differences cause disease or illness. Genes that contribute to mental illnesses like depression or schizophrenia do so in a variety of ways. For instance, a gene may affect the way a child’s brain develops, making him more susceptible to autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Genes are not the only factors that cause a person to have a mental illness, though. Environmental factors like injuries, exposure in the womb to alcohol or drugs, traumatic events, abuse and other factors play a role in mental illness. However, genetics are an important element, and understanding what genes can lead a person to have a mental illness is crucial for diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

Genetic Connections

The diagnosis of mental health disorders mostly relies on symptoms. A mental health professional completes the diagnosis of a patient by observing symptoms and by listening to the patient describe her symptoms. Different conditions, like schizophrenia and depression, have been considered separate illnesses based on the lists of symptoms.

Recent research has uncovered genetic links between these mental disorders that shows they are more closely related than was previously thought based on symptoms alone. The study was led by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and included hundreds of scientists from over 20 countries throughout the world. By analyzing the genes of thousands of patients, the researchers found genetic similarities among five major mental health disorders: schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, autism and ADHD.

The largest connection was between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There is a 15 percent overlap between the genes involved in the two disorders. Smaller, but still significant overlaps were found between bipolar disorder and depression, ADHD and depression, and autism and schizophrenia. The analysis conducted by the researchers looked only at the most common genes that are known to contribute to the disorders. They did not look at the more rare gene variants. This means that the overlap is probably even greater than what was measured in the study.

Understanding Mental Illness

The implications for the results of the NIMH study are important for researchers, mental health professionals and patients. Understanding the underlying genetics will help with better diagnoses of illnesses. The current method of classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses based on symptoms alone is not necessarily accurate. Having a more reliable way to categorize and diagnose mental disorders will allow doctors to better help their patients.

The newfound connections between these mental disorders will also help clinicians, doctors and researchers develop and use better treatments. Understanding the similarities between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, for example, will help experts come up with more effective treatments. Something that has been used with success in schizophrenic patients may also help those with bipolar disorder. Behavioral therapies that help children with autism may be useful for patients struggling with depression.

Whenever researchers can uncover more information about diseases, we increase our understanding of them, and that helps patients. The more we know about causes and the development of mental illness, the easier it becomes to find ways to prevent them and to treat pe

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