After one of the largest examinations of genetic data ever conducted, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital have found a genetic link between five types of mental disorders: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, major depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
While researchers acknowledge hundreds of genes may ultimately determine psychiatric illness, the study’s significance lies in its demonstration that the five psychiatric conditions may actually represent a disease spectrum rather than five distinct, unrelated conditions.
The latest findings, published in The Lancet, stem from a genetic examination of more than 60,000 people from across the globe.
According to University of Minnesota Physicians psychiatrist S. Charles Schulz, M.D., the head of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, the latest research is significant in how it might lead to a breakdown in the silos of psychiatric illness.
“This is the largest study to ever examine the genetics of multiple illnesses, and it has the ability to describe that there are genes that go across five mental disorders,” said Schulz. “What they’re talking about is defining illness across a spectrum. Historically this area of psychosis had been broken down into disease categories. What we’re finding is that the underlying biology demonstrates similarities across these five conditions.”
Schulz added that it’s actually not surprising that there would be overlapping gene abnormalities within the spectrum of psychotic illness. In fact, 12 years ago he and his colleagues completed a study showing similarities in the brain images of both schizophrenic and bipolar patients at the outset of their illness.
By examining genes, researchers may be able to redesign the way medications are sought, developed and tested. The hope is that psychiatry may ultimately be able to head down a road of targeted therapy. In breast cancer for example, physicians can determine which type of breast cancer some patients are battling, tailoring therapies and treatment approaches for a more effective outcome. Taking the same approach for psychiatric patients could result in profound patient benefit.
According to Schulz, work within the field of genetics may arm future clinicians with tools to better assess or measure gene characteristics related to symptoms across the spectrum of psychotic illness. Confronted with a schizophrenic patient battling cognitive abnormalities, for example, a doctor might use genetic profiles to determine which medication would work best for that particular patient.
“What we might find is that within general conditions, there are underlying genes that, if we could identify them, would help us provide the best treatment for particular patients,” said Schulz. “For the field of psychiatry, the prospects of aiding our patients in this way is really very exciting, and an area of research we at the University are excited to contribute to in the coming years.”