Why genetic research will help us develop mental disorder therapies

Schizophrenia is estimated to grow by one quarter of all people worldwide. Marked by hallucinations and visions, the symptoms of this mental illness normally begin in adolescence and early adulthood. It is a disease that does not go away and causes permanent disability and pain to many of the people who suffer from it and to their families.

There has been more than half a century of stagnation in the treatment of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Notably, there are currently no pharmacological therapies for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and cognitive dysfunction in schizophrenia. Drugs to treat psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and visions, were first discovered serendipitously in the 1950s. Advances since then have been largely limited to the elimination of side effects. Efficacy has not improved since the discovery of clozapine in the 1960s.

As we know, human brains are highly complex, but they are ultimately inviolable in existence, and vital elements of human psychological conditions cannot be captured in animal models. For example, psychological disorders have been associated with anatomical anomalies such as excessive gray matter loss in the cerebral cortex. The high heritability of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ASD, and other psychiatric disorders has long been recognized, but before the advent of modern genomic and computational methods, we had no means of discovering the mechanisms of the disease. Schizophrenia and the most common types of other psychological disorders include the interplay of several hundreds of genes, each leading to a small risk that rapidly adds up. Scientists believe that these diseases are extremely polygenic.

As a result, psychological conditions are heterogeneous in that affected people will have varying variations of risk-based variants of the relevant genes.

Genetic studies of psychiatric disorders are making rapid strides, but that actually benefits no one if what we end up with are gene lists. It is important that we advance the study of human biology so that we can turn genetic information into mechanical biological knowledge and new therapeutic knowledge.

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Categories: Clinical, Mental Health