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Genetic Link for ADHD, Autism, Bipolar, More

March 5, 2013 | Harry Kimball

Last week the New York Times reported on an intriguing study—"the largest genetic study yet of psychiatric disorders," according to its authors-with these results: there are genetic risk factors for disorders like autism, bipolar disorder, schizophreniaand some of them are the same across disorders.

The authors looked at genetic information from more than 60,000 people, about half with no psychiatric diagnosis and half with schizophrenia, bipolar, autism, major depression, or ADHD. In a nutshell, they found mutations in the clinical population at four DNA locations that conferred some risk for all five disorders. Although two of these locations suggest the possibility of a novel treatment, the authors caution that the impact of this study should be more along of the lines of changing how we think about mental illness.

The study jibes in particular with the push to replace the "subjective" measures like symptomology in diagnosing psychiatric disorders with objective tests, which haven't been available. As the authors write in their conclusion: "Our findings are relevant to the goal of moving beyond descriptive syndromes in psychiatry and towards a nosology informed by disease cause. " (We should note that the risk implied by these DNA mutations is very smalland that the genesis of all of these disorders remains a complex combination of biological and environmental factors.)

This study is particularly important because investigators have not only located a contributing biological risk factor, but they've put forward an argument for reimagining how we group disorders.

As the authors add: "The finding that genetic variants have cross-disorder effects is an empirical step towards helping clinicians understand the common co-occurrence of clinical phenotypes in individual patients." Or, in English: These sorts of results have the potential to help real people struggling with mental illness get better care from better informed clinicians. Sounds good to us.

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