Understanding of Genetic Connections in Mental Health Continues, With Major Announcement at NIH

This year has brought growing awareness about needs in mental health, including the need to learn more about the genetic underpinnings of the disease. Today, investigators supported by the National Institutes of Health announced a major step forward toward that goal. Reporting in the journal Nature, the group said it had shown how a rate mutation in a suspicious gene sets off a chain reaction in other genes, disrupting the synapses, which function like a switch between neural connections.

This year has brought growing awareness about needs in mental health, including the need to learn more about the genetic underpinnings of the disease.

At the 167th meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in May, Thomas R. Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said the more scientists learn about the connections between genetics and mental illness, the less guesswork there will be in treating major diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

Today, investigators supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a major step forward toward that goal. Reporting in the journal Nature, the group said it had shown how a rate mutation in a suspicious gene sets off a chain reaction in other genes, disrupting the synapses, which function like a switch between neural connections.

Researchers studied cells from 4 members of a family affected by schizophrenia and genetically related mental disorders. Neurons that indicated psychosis were 80% less likely to express a protein made by a gene present in the family members with the mutation. These “mutant neurons,” according to the NIH, lacked the communication apparatus to connect with other neurons at synapses.

The research suggests a common disease mechanism in major mental illnesses that “integrates genetic risk, aberrant neurodevelopment, and synapse dysfunction. The overall approach may hold promise for testing potential treatments to connect synaptic deficits,” the NIH said in its announcement.

The findings follow a study in the May issue of The American Journal of Managed Care, in which researchers examined the cost-effectiveness of genetic testing prior to prescribing medication to treat psychiatric disorders. Getting the right drug the first time improved adherence, and while pharmacy costs increased, use of medical services decreased.

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