Genes play a significant part in most mental illnesses but we are only beginning to understand how they have their effects.
New research funded by the NIHR Oxford Health BRC and published in Molecular Psychiatry, sheds light on the role of genetics in mental illness, suggesting that genes influence the way children’s brains are ‘wired up’. This difference in nerve connections within the brain serves as a ‘vulnerability network’ for later developing mental illness.
Dr Maxime Taquet, lead author on the paper and academic foundation doctor at the University of Oxford, explains:
“Psychiatric illnesses share much in common with each other: the symptoms of different disorders overlap, as do the genetic risk factors…We found that those whose genes put them at higher risk of later developing a psychiatric illness have a different pattern of brain connections”
Where this altered network is present, individuals are susceptible to not just one but a whole range of mental health conditions including schizophrenia, autism, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Dr Taquet continues:
“Because the vulnerability network is shared across psychiatric diagnoses, it may be one factor which explains why these diagnoses have so many similarities. It also suggests that the genes have their effect by altering the development of brain connections.”
The research team studied the brain scans of a group of nearly 700 healthy children. By using data from a young and healthy population they were able to limit the impact on their findings from pre-existing illness or treatment, and from exposure to environmental factors.
They went on to show that, as well as predisposing people to a number of mental health disorders, the same genetic factors are associated with behaviours that make people more vulnerable to mental health problems, such as marijuana and alcohol misuse and impulsive behaviour.
As well as helping to explain similarities between psychiatric disorders, the team’s findings enhance our understanding of the way these conditions emerge and have potential to inform the development of interventions to treat and prevent them.
The paper is available here https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-020-0723-7.