Researchers are constantly seeking clues that may unlock the mysteries of mental illness. A recent discovery about a genetic link between five major disorders has great potential for helping professionals find better ways to treat and diagnose mental illness. Scientists found genetic links between the following disorders: attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia. A worldwide consortium, composed of researchers from 19 countries, discovered four basic regions of one genetic code linked to all of the above disorders. The Psychiatric Genomics Consortium analyzed the DNA of more than 61,000 people and presented their findings in a recent issue of The Lancet journal. The findings could contribute to a new protocol for treating mental illness that would rely more heavily on genetic information and less on observed and reported symptoms.
The Role of Calcium
Two of the genes that scientists found most interesting were ones that regulated (or did not regulate) calcium flow throughout the brain cells. They found that the dysfunction of these genes could provide clues as to why the communication in brain cells can sometimes be blocked. These blocked communication lines could be the factor in how and why people develop mental disorders. Scientists say that even small changes in the way the brain processes and relays information can affect a person’s mental health. A break in communication between neurons, however slight, may be powerful enough to provoke a mental illness.
Diagnosing a mental illness is not as easy as taking a blood test, listening to someone’s heart or taking a CT scan. The findings by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium are most important because they have found concrete links as to what is malfunctioning in the brain. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) funded the research in order to find these critical links. Dr. Bruce Cuthbert, of NIMH, said that the new research is not powerful enough to provide ways to diagnose mental illnesses or even identify risk factors for the disorders at this time, but it is a tangible finding in the right direction. Dr. Jordan Smoller, director of psychiatric genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and leader of the research team, said he is encouraged by the discovery that these genetic variants are shared among disorders. Future research may reveal other crossovers of variants that provide greater understanding of the manifestation of mental illnesses. Scientists see these findings as a concrete step that may show why people suffer from certain mental illnesses. Like a CT scan, a blood test, or a stethoscope, it may also give health practitioners a tool to help in diagnosing these illnesses. Better than all of these aids, this research may eventually help in preventing mental illness.