A recent research breakthrough that shed light on the genetics of common mental disorders could potentially revolutionize the way doctors approach mental illness.
The Psychiatric Genomics Consortium—a research group composed of scientists from 19 different countries—found that autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have some similarities in genetic make up.
Although these disorders do share some overlapping symptoms and in some cases can be treated by the same medications, the genetic similarities come as a surprise.
“These disorders that we thought of as quite different may not have such sharp boundaries,” said Dr. Jordan Smoller of Massachusetts General Hospital. Smoller is one of the lead researchers of the study, which first appeared in the Lancet.
These new findings could change the way doctors treat mental illnesses. Currently, these mental illnesses are diagnosed based on symptoms. This can be difficult because some patients may be suffering from co-occurring conditions. Additionally, the subjective nature of diagnosis–combined with symptomatic overlap–can lead to the pitfall of misdiagnosis. Nailing down the genetics of these disorders could lead to testing that can more accurately identify and distinguish between different conditions.
“If we really want to diagnose and treat people effectively, we have to get to these more fine-grained understandings of what’s actually going wrong biologically,” Dr. Bruce Cuthbert of the U.S. National Institute on Mental Health.
Although the study is a big step, the new findings do not have an immediate impact on treatment of mental illness. Since mental disorders are believed to be caused by a number of circumstances such as genes, life experiences and even the months leading up to birth, researchers still have a ways to go in terms of fully understanding these illnesses. However, understanding genetics underlines the importance of physiological attribution to mental illness.
“We are one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of mental illness and thus to developing more targeted treatments, though this is still a slow process,” said Dr. Robert Levitan, a psychiatrist with Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
The study is said to be the largest of its kind to date. The genomes of over 61,000 people were studied—including some with mental disorders and some without any major mental health issues. Over 33,000 of the patients studied had been diagnosed with at least one of the five mental illnesses.