One Big Not-So-Happy Family: Major Psychiatric Disorders Share a Common Genetic Link

I’m a recipient of a Google Alert on Bipolar Disorder.  This just means that Google automatically notifies me when there’s new news (as opposed to the old kind, I guess) on the web on BD. It can be from news sources, blogs, videos—you name it.

Some days, 5 out of 6 of the news stories will be about Catherine Zeta Jones.  I don’t usually feel I’m getting my money’s worth on those days.

I also have to overlook the fact that on any given day, the majority of the news stories cover the same topic. Let’s take yesterday.  There were 9 news alerts, which made it a pretty big news day in Google land—and 8 of them covered breaking news—I mean, the same piece of breaking news, but it’s nice to have “new news” nonetheless.

The last one was on a topic we’ve known for years now, but it keeps re-appearing in my alerts, making me wonder if there’s a secret lithium lobby.  Every every time there’s a moment of quiet, they push to get this factoid back into the public’s consciousness: “Lithium can reduce suicide risk in bipolar disorder.” (It’s true—you can click on it and check it out—over and over again.)

In an effort not to be outdone by yesterday, today’s Google Alert again covered the story—as if it was brand new—but perhaps they realized they couldn’t ride the coattails of this self-same story forever, for out of 10 stories, 7 addressed the genetic overlap I’m about to explain, but 3 spread out in other directions—addressing sleep and BD, asking “What is depression?” (leading me to ask, Why is this in my Bipolar Disorder Alert?), and, finally, ending with a big finale, important to scholars, researchers, and patients alike, as you can tell from the title which reads, “North Carolina man who killed a Montgomery man because God told him to will enter secure mental facility.”

For years scientists and researchers have viewed most mental illnesses as distinct diseases, leading to different treatments and dissimilar public understanding of the illnesses.  And I say “understanding” with a grain of salt: frankly, no one has a clue as to the causes of psychiatric illnesses. Psychiatrists have long used symptoms to diagnose illnesses, but, look, we all know that’s far from perfect. Recently research has pointed up genetics as playing a major role, which gives diagnosticians something to hang their hats on.

And so they were super-excited (you know, in the way scientists get so worked up) to find that 5 of the major psychiatric illnesses are genetically connected in a big way. The hope—although it’s a long way off, I don’t expect to be getting a Google Alert that it’s happened too soon—is that doctors can soon make diagnoses based on the genetic aberrations underlying the diseases.


This past week researchers partially funded by the National Institutes of Health published evidence of  “substantial overlap for genetic risk factors” shared between bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism.

Interestingly enough, the overlap was highest between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; was only moderate for bipolar disorder and depression [which is where I would have put my chips, had anyone asked me], moderate for ADHD and depression—and low between schizophrenia and autism.

In total, common genetic variation accounted for 17-28 percent of risk for the illnesses.

If you want to find out more, this will be published as “Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. Genetic relationship between five psychiatric disorders estimated from genome-wide SNPs. Nature Genetics, August 11, 2013.”  Or, you could simply do a web search—it will come up all over.

Alternatively, you can hurry up and sign yourself up for a Google Alert on Bipolar Disorder.  You’ve probably missed the days when the this topic will make up 7 out of 9 headlines, but it’s sure to linger on, unwilling to give up its moment in the sun, just like lithium with its anti-suicidal properties, and—goodness knows—just like Catherine Zeta Jones.


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