Exploring the Link Between Genetics and Mental Illness

Researchers and organizations around the world have been searching for links between genetic variations and mental illness for decades. Connecting the genetic clues could identify better ways to effectively treat mental illness and be able to recognize the risk years before a clinical diagnosis.

Several recent studies reveal connections exist.

Schizophrenia: New DNA Variations Discovered

In 2014, the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium published a study providing evidence that genetics play a role in developing schizophrenia. The massive study, which included 37,000 cases spanning 25 countries, identified 108 different genetic markers associated with schizophrenia. Of those, only 25 were previously reported.

According to former NIMH Director Thomas Insel, the study is a “major step forward in describing the genetic risk for schizophrenia.” He identified three key areas of its impact on future research:

  • Many of the genetic markers overlap with rare mutations identified from previous reports to be associated with risk of schizophrenia, so this confirms that those regions merit a deeper dive.
  • Previous “suspects” for schizophrenia that are currently targets for anti-psychotic medications were on the list of 108 genetic markers, so there may be an opportunity to determine other genetic markers that medications can target.
  • The genetic findings provide a way to develop a way to calculate how at-risk individuals are for schizophrenia.

Genetic Overlap: 5 Mental Health Disorders Share Variations

In 2013, an NIMH study uncovered that five mental health disorders – autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia – all share some of the same genetic risk factors.

These mental health disorders were traditionally thought to be distinct, but the study, which was the largest genome-wide study of its kind, showed that people with these diseases had genetic variations at the same four chromosomal sites, including “risk versions of two genes that regulate the flow of calcium into cells.”

One of these genetic variations, CACNA1C, was previously linked as a “susceptibility to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression, is known to impact brain circuitry involved in emotion, thinking, attention and memory.”

The study was unprecedented given that researchers thought these mental health disorders were distinct. Evidence of such genetic overlap had been previously limited to pairs of disorders, which is important because overlap at the genetic level has caused the boundaries of traditional diagnostic categories to blur, and demanded NIMH to develop new ways of classifying psychopathology based on neuroscience, genetics and observed behavior.

Brain Size & DNA: Genetic Clues for Mental Illness

In 2012, an international coalition of researchers utilized data collected from a massive global brain study called Project ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta Analysis) and were able to demonstrate “clear patterns in genetic variation and show how these changes physically alter the brain,” according to senior author Paul Thompson, professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in a university press release.

The study examined brain size through MRI images from nearly 22,000 healthy people while simultaneously studying their DNA. Scientists searched for genetic variants in people with larger and smaller brains. When researchers focused on the DNA of those with smaller brains, they found a “consistent relationship between subtle shifts in the genetic code and diminished memory centers,” the release stated. According to Thompson, smaller brain size is a “biological marker for disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.”

Although recent studies are uncovering genetic markers associated with mental illness, it’s still too early to use genetic testing to accurately diagnose or treat mental disorders, according to the NIMH. However, researchers and research organizations such as the Psychiatric Genomic Consortium, NIMH and Project ENIMGA will continue efforts to discover the relationship between genetic markers and mental illness.

Mental Illness: Who is at Risk?

More than 40 million American adults experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

From having one major depressive episode per year to dealing with hallucinations and delusions every day, the symptoms and severity of mental illness can widely vary. Most Americans who experience mental illness do not experience major disruptions to their daily lives. However, nearly 10 million adults live with a serious disorder that significantly impacts one or more major life activities, the NIMH reports.

Anyone can suffer from mental illness, but risk factors increase if the disease runs in your family.

For example, according to the NIMH, if an identical twin has bipolar disorder, the other has a 60-80% chance of developing the disorder. Comparatively, a fraternal twin only has an 8% chance of becoming bipolar.

Diagnosis & Treatment: Tips to Improve Your Mental Health

While family history is an indicator of risk, understanding the genetic variations associated with mental illness can provide vital insights and improve overall awareness, diagnosis and treatment. But can it predict the risk for mental illness? Not yet.

However, it can help people become more aware of what to look for and how to adjust diet and exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing have been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and negative mood, according to a 2006 report published in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Authors note that a positive side effect includes improved self-esteem and cognitive function, which alleviates symptoms associated with low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

According to the report, 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, three days a week, is enough to see results.

Maintaining a healthy diet can also impact your mind and body. Below are a few tips provided by Mental Health America.

  • Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. Mild dehydration can lead to fatigue, lack of focus and mood changes.
  • Reduce caffeine. Too much caffeine can trigger panic attacks for people with anxiety.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Not having a meal to start your day can also cause fatigue and feelings of “brain fog.”
  • Avoid high-fat dairy foods and fried, refined and sugary foods. Too much of these types of foods increase risk of depression.

Read our guide on how to achieve emotional wellness here.

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