Mental health disabilities can be debilitating, and not just for the individual, but for friends and family members as well. Usually, mental health disabilities are shrugged off as being hereditary, and therefore there is nothing that can be done about it. But there are actually two untrue statements in that last sentence. To start, there is always something that can be done, even if it’s just talking with someone. Second, scientists have had very little luck in understanding how our genes influence our risk of developing major depression or schizophrenia. But new research published in the journal, Science seems to provide something big needed in order for that greater insight. The research provides a roadmap of how genes are expressed differently in the brains of people with one of five major psychiatric disorders.
An internal coalition of researchers sifted through data from earlier studies, which analyzed the genetic makeup of peoples brains. The brains were donated after death, but they were from people who were diagnosed with either clinical depression, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, alcoholism or bipolar disorder. The studies involved 700 people in total. Researchers looked at the RNA molecules found within the brains in the cerebral cortex, which read and then translate the DNA that’s packed into every cell. This allowed them to broadly see and map out how the cells actually carried out genetic instructions.
What did they find? They found that lots of distinctive overlaps of molecular activity between the brains of people with psychiatric disorders that weren’t found in “healthy” brains. Meaning that this might not be the only thing to consider.
“These findings provide a molecular, pathological signature of these disorders, which is a large step forward,” said Daniel Geschwind. Geschwind is a professor of neurology, psychiatry and human genetics as well as Director of the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment. These findings might even change how we think about certain mental health disabilities. For example, the molecular signature that is seen in people’s brains with bipolar disorder is very similar to those with schizophrenia. This actually came as a surprise to the researchers since the symptoms of each tend to be very different from one another.
But there were also some big differences. The brains of people with alcoholism shared almost nothing in common with anyone else’s. Which is extremely interesting, especially since this is contrary to earlier research that suggests depression and alcoholism are often genetically linked. Also interesting is that depression had many patterns of molecular activity not found with the other disorders. These kinds of distinctions are extremely important since they might someday help scientists develop better diagnostic tests.
As I said in a previous post, these findings don’t necessarily mean we will be able to find a “cure” for mental health disabilities. It simply means that researchers are on the way to being able to discover what they might be able to do in order to further understand certain mental health disabilities. Which is incredible news. Geschwind says that even though they now understand some of the causes, this new work shows the consequences, but they still have to understand the mechanisms by which this happens, so they can develop some way to change the outcomes.