Psychiatric Illnesses May Involve Changes in Only Two Genes

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A new study shows that changes in only two genes may account for most psychiatric illnesses.



As most regular readers of Weekly Health Update know, I rarely discuss psychiatric research studies here, as most behavioral studies are based upon lower level research methodologies, and many of these studies also take inadequate safeguards, in my view, to eliminate inherent biases. However, every now and then, a psychiatric study comes along that catches my attention, and merits further discussion.

Currently, psychiatric diagnoses are based upon clinical symptoms that are organized into diagnostic groups contained in the “bible” of Psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or “DSM.” Because specific psychiatric diagnoses are based almost entirely on the subjective observation of signs and symptoms of mental illness, rather than objective test results, there is enormous potential for misdiagnosis. Moreover, many psychiatric diagnoses are associated with overlapping clusters of symptoms, which further increases the likelihood of misdiagnosis (and inappropriate treatment).

A new research study, which appears in the current issue of the journal The Lancet, strongly suggests that several common mental health disorders long thought to be unrelated to each other may, in fact, share a common biological basis, at least in some patients. The striking findings of this novel genetic study may dramatically change the way that psychiatrists diagnose and manage patients with psychiatric illnesses.

In this landmark study, 33,332 patients with psychiatric illnesses and 27,888 healthy control subjects underwent sequencing of their entire complement of DNA (“genome”), looking for genetic variations known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). (These common variations in the individual “letters” of our genetic code are responsible for many of the differences that exist among us, including hair color, eye color, and other variations, or traits, that can be readily observed.) The researchers then used very complex genetic analysis tools to search for SNPs that appeared to be linked, specifically, to the diagnosis of 5 different psychiatric illnesses in this large population of research subjects.

The results of this landmark study go a long way towards explaining the inaccuracies and inconsistencies commonly associated with the clinical diagnosis of psychiatric illnesses based upon DSM diagnostic criteria. Another very important result of this study is that it provides a potential explanation for the actual genetic and biological basis for at least some cases of common psychiatric illnesses.

Based upon the enormous amount of genetic information collected in this study, SNPs at four specific genetic sites were found to be strongly associated with the following 5 common psychiatric illnesses: autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder (depression), and schizophrenia. What was especially fascinating was the finding that genetic variations at these four sites involved just two genes, both of which are associated with calcium channels that act like microscopic gates that allow calcium to move into or out of cells.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this study’s findings. For perhaps the first time, there is now genetic and biological data linking the 5 most common major psychiatric illnesses to specific locations in just two genes, which argues against the current clinical view that each of these illnesses are completely unrelated to each other. Indeed, the finding that variations in only two genes may account for these 5 common psychiatric illnesses is hugely significant, as is the finding that these two genes, which are involved in the construction of calcium channels, may play a fundamental role in the development of these seemingly unrelated illnesses.

The findings of this pivotal study will, hopefully, help psychiatrists to move away from the current subjective, and often arbitrary, methods of clinically diagnosing and treating psychiatric illnesses, and move towards making diagnoses based upon objective gene-based (“molecular”) and biological findings. Moreover, reaching a clearer understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying these common psychiatric illnesses may also lead to innovative new treatment options for patients with mental health illnesses.


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Dr. Wascher’s latest video:

Dark as Night, Part 1

Dark as Night, Part 1

Dark as Night, Part 1

At this time, more than 8 percent of Americans are unemployed.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty between September 2001 and December 2011 is now more than 12 percent.  A new website, Veterans in Healthcare, seeks to connect veterans with potential employers.  If you are a veteran who works in the healthcare field, or if you are an employer who is looking for physicians, advanced practice professionals, nurses, corpsmen/medics, or other healthcare professionals, then please take a look at Veterans in Healthcare. As a retired veteran of the U.S. Army, I would also like to personally urge you to hire a veteran whenever possible.

Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity

Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author


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