07:05pm Thursday 12 December 2019

Getting to the root of psychiatric disorders

Individuals suffering from neuropsychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, mood disorders or autism often face hardships.

Thought, emotions and a person’s sense of self are affected, making this form of illness the leading cause of disability in North American and Europe. Further, the burden is often carried by the individuals, families and society and can last a life-time.

With no significant treatment breakthroughs for schizophrenia in the past 50 years, and none for depression in the last 20 years, researchers in the field are now rallying for a fresh new approach – getting to root of these meiconditions by delving into the core of the brain and unraveling the genetic, molecular and cellular causes of these conditions.

In a new article highlighted in the Policy Forum of the March 26 issue of Science, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Columbia University, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Washington, the Broad Institute, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, and Baylor College of Medicine, noted the lack of progress in the way of major treatment breakthroughs and knowledge of the underlying biology of these conditions. Among the team of prestigious authors are James D. Watson, Ph.D., who co-discovered DNA, and Eric Kandel, M.D., the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine.

The authors suggested that the integration of two approaches – genomics and circuit analysis – may provide some of the necessary answers to move the understanding of these mental illnesses forward. Through genomics researchers could discover the genetic basis of these disorders within subjects and families; while through circuit analysis, the structure, function and dysregulation of relevant neural circuits could be revealed.

“If ever funded, this initiative could have a very large impact on psychiatric genetics providing us great power to detect rare genetic variants that may be making critical contributions to the risk of illness in our patients,” said Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., one of the paper’s co-authors and director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

Since the early 1980s, Kendler, who is a professor of human and molecular genetics in the VCU School of Medicine, has studied the genetics of psychiatric and substance use disorders including schizophrenia, major depression, alcoholism, and smoking and nicotine dependence. His work on the molecular level focuses on identifying the location of the specific genes that influence vulnerability to schizophrenia, alcoholism, and nicotine dependence.

According to Kendler, exploring the relationship between genetics and environmental risk factors in the development of drug abuse behaviors has helped provide important clues to understanding the underlying causes of psychiatric and substance use disorders.

The authors wrote, “As new genetic variants are discovered for psychiatric disorders, it will be possible to introduce these mutations into mouse models to simulate the human disorder, providing badly needed insights into the pathogenesis of these disorders.”

Sathya Achia Abraham
VCU Communications and Public Relations
(804) 827-0890

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