‘Gene links’ of mental disorders lift treatment hopes

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE. Picture: Contributed
Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE. Picture: Contributed
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A COMPREHENSIVE genetic study has uncovered links between common mental health problems such as autism and schizophrenia which could lead to new treatments.

In the largest ever genetic study of psychiatric illness, researchers found that several serious disorders shared common genetic risk factors.

The findings give scientists new targets for treatments which focus on the affected genes.

Campaigners welcomed the research, published in the Lancet, but said more work was needed before the results could be translated into benefits for patients.

The study, carried out by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found the genetic links in five psychiatric illnesses – autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia.

The researchers from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium scanned the genome – a person’s entire genetic make-up – in 33,332 patients and a control group of 27,888 people without a mental health condition.

They identified four genetic risk areas with significant and overlapping links with all five of the diseases studied. These were found on chromosomes – the strands of DNA which carry the body’s genetic information.

The researchers also found genetic variations in two genes involved in the balance of calcium in brain cells. Further analysis confirmed that activity in these regions linked to calcium could play an important role in the development of all five of the disorders studied.

Professor Jordan Smoller, one of the lead researchers, said: “Significant progress has been made in understanding the genetic risk factors underlying psychiatric disorders.

“Our results provide new evidence that may inform a move beyond descriptive syndromes in psychiatry and towards classification based on underlying causes.”

Mental health disorders pose a major challenge to health services in Scotland, with huge numbers of people affected by these illnesses during their lifetimes.

An estimated 50,000 Scots are believed to have autism, while ADHD is believed to affect between 2 and 5 per cent of school-aged children.

According to Bipolar Scotland, bipolar disorder – sometimes referred to as manic depression – is thought to affect one in every 100 adults at some time during their life. Around the same number will be affected by schizophrenia.

Dr Robert Moffat, director of The National Autistic Society Scotland, welcomed research that improved understanding of autism and its complex causes. “However, further research is needed before any concrete conclusions can be drawn about the causes of autism and what this might mean for future developments,” he said.

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said: “If this largest ever genetic study of psychiatric illness can further our understanding of the causes of major mental disorders it could lead to more effective treatment and a release from suffering for many thousands of individuals and their families.

The Mental Health Foundation said the latest genetics study demonstrated what could be achieved with proper investment into mental health research.