Genetics and Mental Health

Image for mental illness and genectics article It has long been known that some conditions tend to run in families. In fact, much of our understanding of mental health conditions comes from family, adoption, and twin studies. For example, if an identical twin has schizophrenia, the other twin has at least a 50% chance of also developing it. With the goal of adding to this body of knowledge, researchers are studying the possible links between certain genes and serious conditions like schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder.


Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe brain condition that affects behavior and thoughts. People with schizophrenia may have hallucinations and delusions, such as seeing things that aren't really there or believing that they are being followed. If left untreated, schizophrenia can impact every aspect of a person's life, including their relationships with family and friends, as well as their careers.While the family link to schizophrenia is well-established, paring down the risk to one specific gene is an extremely difficult challenge. A gene called catecho-O-methyltransferase (COMT) has been the focus of a lot of investigation. This gene makes an enzyme that breaks down dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is believed to play a role in the development of schizophrenia. Researchers found some evidence to support the idea that people who inherit a certain combination or a mutation of the COMT gene may be more susceptible to schizophrenia. Much more research is needed because of the complexity of how genes interact with each other and how different neurotransmitters affect the brain's functioning.


People suffering from depression experience a range of symptoms, such as sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness. These symptoms can greatly affect a person's quality of life and, in severe cases, lead to suicide.One of the questions researchers have been trying to answer is why some people become depressed in reaction to stressful life events while others do not. A gene that has been studied is the serotonin receptor gene. In one study, researchers followed 847 New Zealanders over 5 years and charted their reaction to different life stressors. Stressors included things like loss of job, death of a loved one, broken relationships, or prolonged illness. What they found was that participants with a short version of a particular gene (the serotonin transporter gene) were more likely to become depressed than those who had the long version of the same gene. A more recent review, though, that included 14 studies did not find an association between this short serotonin transporter gene and an increased risk of depression. As with schizophrenia, many different genes may predispose someone to depression, so the odds of finding one gene that is responsible for this condition are very low.

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