Searching for the Genetic Roots of Mental Illness

In today’s New York Times, Benedict Carey and I have a feature about two big pieces of news on the search for genes involved in psychiatric diseases. After many years of struggle, a new paper published today shows how scientists are starting to build a catalog of these genes–in this case, over 100 genes associated with schizophrenia. The paper coincides with the other big piece of news we report on: the announcement of a $650 million gift to the Broad Institute (one of the partners in the new study) from a family that has been personally affected by psychiatric diseases–the biggest gift for psychiatric research ever.

There are lots of issues at play here. For one thing, it speaks to the rise in private funding of scientific research, a topic explored in depth in this Times feature by William Broad. Will all this private money enable the Broad team to do research that they wouldn’t be able to if they had to apply for round after round of funding from government sources?

Another issue is the importance of genetics in psychiatric diseases. Just because there are genes involved in schizophrenia doesn’t mean it’s simply a genetic disorder like sickle cell anemia. What these findings suggest is that some mutations to some genes may make some people at greater risk for schizophrenia than others–perhaps, for example, because it raises the risk that an infection sets off an immune response that harms the brain (that’s one theory). But similar studies on depression haven’t yielded strong results–is that because genetics doesn’t make much difference to who gets depressed or who doesn’t? Or do we just need to look at more people?

In any case, I hope our story helps inform discussions on these issues. Check it out.