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.

17 thoughts on “Searching for the Genetic Roots of Mental Illness

  1. Schizophrenia is as ill defined as illness as it is as genetic disease.

    A madman can be classified as schizophreniac.

    A person who gets persecuted because he feels persecuted – as well as one who feels persecuted because he is – can be classified as schizophreniac.

    The original sequence of stages, there was the hebephrenic stage which is per se neither mad nor harmful, then there are the paranoid and catatonic stages, which are easily figured out as nosocomial.

    The hebephrenic, that is careless, person ceases to be so and becomes paranoid, i e suspicious, when he finds his carelessness leads him into trouble with psychiatry.

    The paranoid person becomes catatonic, i e care-for-nothing any more, when he gives up after all paranoia gives no freedom from shrinks’ dolourous involvements in his life.

    Certain cultures and in our culture certain subcultures are far quicker than others in classing a behaviour as any of above. And trying to get away from the kind of background one de facto has, may be by some considered as just another symptom.

    It is the diagnosis that destroys lives, not the so called disease, except in the rarest cases, and most of those nosocomial, i e due to the treatment.

  2. Not to mention the fact that with symptoms like “delusion” accepted as symptoms, one can use the diagnosis to fight against, for instance, Geocentrism or Heliocentrism, violating someone’s rights of conviction or of expressing it.

    Not to mention the fact that certain someones have so much sensitivised themselves to how absurd any opinion but their own is, someone consistently arguing against them and doing so coherently, will easily be stamped as expressing himself in incoherent speech or thought – that also being a favourite symptom of the shrinks, as excuses for locking someone up or making money for big phramaceutical companies, when they produce torture instruments like Haldol.

    NOT TO MENTION, that East Germany made a specialty of all these. And Ossis are a bit too well integrated in the new unified Germany, when they are scientists (or supposed to be such).

  3. “One day in 1988, a college dropout named Jonathan Stanley was visiting New York City when he became convinced that government agents were closing in on him.

    He bolted, and for three days and nights raced through the city streets and subway tunnels. His flight ended in a deli, where he climbed a plastic crate and stripped off his clothes. The police took him to a hospital, and he finally received effective treatment two years after getting a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.”

    OK, certain details, like climbing the crate, may seem a bit excessive.

    BUT if he had alreay had been followed up for two years for bipolar disorder, that MIGHT have given him certain non-negligible reasons for panic.

    Plus, if this is one of the new generous funders, how do we know he is honest rather than giving a sob story to raise support as well as funding for the power of psychiatry?

    And if he had been reading NYTimes regularly, that might just have given him some panicky reactions as well. One side link reads:

    “If you read this, you might never drink a latte again”

    How paranoid, if you will, is that?

  4. Hans — seems you need a reason to find a conspiracy theory here. If you read the article you already know it came from the person’s own words.

  5. As to delay in answering, I missed notification.

    Jon, I was and am aware this is from the words of the person concerned.

    What I said then after quoting him was:

    * OK, certain details, like climbing the crate, may seem a bit excessive.

    BUT if he had alreay had been followed up for two years for bipolar disorder, that MIGHT have given him certain non-negligible reasons for panic. *

    In other words, my FIRST reaction to the story is, yes, he had some kind of breakdown but it was provoked by what psychiatry had been putting him through for two years. This is the major possibility for me.

    Nosocomiality (or roughly equivalent) of the break down.

    Next there are two minor theories as well, one being what you call a conspiracy theory. Seeing a man donate so much, he might have some other, less reputable reason for doing so, and in order to hide that, he may have made up a story that psychiatry helped him.

    The third in total and the second of the minor ones was that the kind of reading he is now published in and was then perhaps reading, i e NYT, predisposes to breakdowns.

    On either view in which he is not a fraud (which is possible), and these two other views do not expclude each other, he would after that breakdown have been Stockholmised about those holding him captive “just to help him.”

    You know the syndrome which outside Sweden is called after Stockholm and in Sweden after a specific place with a bank robbery, Norrmalmstorg. One after one of the hostages, once released, stated having felt sympathy and agreement with THEIR captor.

    This I think regularly happens with psychiatry patients accepting their – usually bogus – diagnoses.

    Those not accepting them risk, by a terrible pilpul, being more targetted as lacking what Swedes call “sjukdomsinsigt” and Germans presumably “Krankheitseinsicht” – a sick man realising he is sick.

    This of course radically narrows the possibility of those considering themselves victims of malpractise to sue for damages.

  6. Hans — if helps any, the person had been diagnosed as bipolar but had no subsequent contact with psych professionals until his hospitalization.

    And try hard as I can, cannot come up with a less than reputable reason for a man to give such a large amount money to an academic-based medical research facility that in an area far removed from the field of his own business.

    Since you say that most psychiatric diagnoses are bogus, I sense your real problem here is that psychiatry is getting such an influx of cash. That’s your right, but it is not a logical basis for assuming that the reason it came about was somehow sinister on the part of the giver.

  7. NYT’s words:

    “One day in 1988, a college dropout named Jonathan Stanley was visiting New York City when he became convinced that government agents were closing in on him. … The police took him to a hospital, and he finally received effective treatment two years after getting a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.”

    Finally effective treatment = between diagnosis two years earlier and this time, no treatment had had effect of desired type.

    “the person had been diagnosed as bipolar but had no subsequent contact with psych professionals until his hospitalization.”

    1) No subsequent contact is a very much more sweeping generalisation than no effective treatment.

    2) Psych professionals are not the only ones involved when “looking after” someone who has been perceived as having mental problems.

    “And try hard as I can, cannot come up with a less than reputable reason for a man to give such a large amount money to an academic-based medical research facility that in an area far removed from the field of his own business.”

    No less than reputable motives? Oh boy, no racialist ever gave money to Maregaret Sanger either, though it was far removed from his business? What about prejudice?

    “Since you say that most psychiatric diagnoses are bogus, I sense your real problem here is that psychiatry is getting such an influx of cash.”

    It is indeed A problem but not THE REAL problem here.

    “but it is not a logical basis for assuming that the reason it came about was somehow sinister on the part of the giver.”

    I am not assuming it. I gave it as one option among three.

    Your grasp of someone else’s logic is as precarious as one can expect from mental health professionals, if they make money of attacking the logical processes of other people.

  8. Indeed, it is a very bad habit to reduce what is obviously A problem to someone to being THE one and only real problem, especially if it can be said to have no logic connexion to conclusions, while the other words do have a such. That is a way of ignoring that someone else is being reasonable.

  9. Here is another problem:

    “Last April, President Obama assembled some of the nation’s most august scientific dignitaries in the East Room of the White House. Joking that his grades in physics made him a dubious candidate for ‘scientist in chief,’ he spoke of using technological innovation ‘to grow our economy’ and unveiled ‘the next great American project’: a $100 million initiative to probe the mysteries of the human brain.”

    He wants research results capable of fuelling the economy.

    That he’s Obama, and has a bad record as pro-abortion is bad enough, but he seems on top of that to reckon on making money on the results – i e on more people being subjected to indignities of psychiatry, on some new product making it and changing even more people’s lives.

    And, on ignoring the badness of changes made, since disqualifying those complaining as not being in their right mind when complaining.

    I am not very happy for the future of humanity after this, no.

  10. Hans — but this money didn’t go to Margaret Sanger. It went to basic research on psychiatric illnesses to a Harvard-MIT created medical facility.

    Obviously you are on fire on the issue, but as it happens I know you are flat out wrong in each of your three negative alternative hypotheses. The most obvious scenario — that it was a simple act of altruism based on actual events seems what you are fighting like the Dickens.

    As it turns out, it is the story of me and my Dad. Only reason I even responded to you was cause it hurt to see my father giving the bulk of what he worked so hard to make in his life to a charitable cause portrayed as possibly some kind of nefarious plot.

  11. Let us take your allegations one by one:

    “Margaret Sanger. It went to basic research on psychiatric illnesses to a Harvard-MIT created medical facility.”

    Wow. Really Sherlock?

    Has it occurred to you that I can consider psychiatric researchers more or less as evil as Margaret Sanger, and that Harvard University (as little as Kent Hovind’s university accredited by any Papal Bull, but much more steeped in the New England Calvinism than his) is hardly mending matter?

    “Obviously you are on fire on the issue”

    It is more correct to say I have taken my stand. It seems you are unable to connect to this being a principled stand, and can only get any notion, however wrong, by mentally painting me as “on fire”.

    With a fever and an infection in my gum, this is hardly likely.

    “but as it happens I know you are flat out wrong in each of your three negative alternative hypotheses.”

    Oh you _know_ that do you? How? Were you there when he was allegedly cured from an alleged mental illness, which might just have been a temporary breakdown, or do you think of yourself as individually or collectively God Omniscient?

    ” The most obvious scenario — that it was a simple act of altruism based on actual events seems what you are fighting like the Dickens.”

    Two of my three scenarios DO take into account that it was subjectively to his mind an antrustic act, and that he subjectively thought of himself as having needed mental help and of psychiatry as having given him that.

    His being altruistic does not mean he cannot be wrong.

    That he were RIGHT is however unlikely.

    Most men who get into such clinics as patients may or may even not have suffered a mental breakdown, but are very certainly kept there while not being in a state of mental breakdown. The likeliest cause for a cure is not that he was sick but cured, but rather that he was never really sick in the first place. Or ill as they say one side of the Atlantic. Then he came to accept the shrinks as gurus. And possibly still does.

    And if he is your Dad, I hope, if he is still under the shrinks, that you will try to get him out of their clutch. He underestimated his sanity.

    I think you know your Dad’s honesty better than I do, so on your word I do baiscally rule out his being a liar. The two other scenarios were perhaps before you were born. I hope you have never had to check into how many sane people are kept in mental hospitals. And that is a long story of my Mum and a somewhat shorter story with me. We independently of each other estimated the number of people really not sane who are kept at any time in such places as one in ten, or one in twenty. Not meaning they don’t exist.

  12. “Oh you _know_ that do you? How? Were you there when he was allegedly cured from an alleged mental illness, which might just have been a temporary breakdown, or do you think of yourself as individually or collectively God Omniscient?”

    Hans — I don’t think you understand. I in no way think I am God, but I do think I am familiar with my own story. Do you really want to argue against that?

    I can guarantee you that my mind was taken over for years by a profound condition that went away in a short while once I started taking medication for it after being in its grips for almost three years. And the only reason I’ve been in contact with “shrinks” for my personal care for twenty years is to get prescription refills.

    Admittedly, I am not my Dad but then I have four decades of experience with him to know why he is making this donation. Not such a bad data set to go off of.

    And I was sorta of assuming that you “consider psychiatric researchers more or less as evil as Margaret Sanger.” Those I’ve come across who feel the same more often or not have had experiences with the psychiatric system, either their own or through someone close to them, that have been ineffective or less than effective.

    That may be the case with you. If so, keep in mind that the whole purpose of this gift to research is to make more interactions like mine in the future and less like those. Would you prefer there be less like mine?

    Hans —

  13. a) I was saying the thing about omniscience before reading the comment it was your dad’s story.

    b) When I had something I could retrospectively describe as either clinical depression or close to, I am very glad I went to no shrink.

    When shrinks did start meddling with my life, they only destroyed what I was trying to do. Not only no help, but no need for help and the so called “help” deleterious.

    c) I would prefer there were less interactions overall with psychiatry, including such as yours.

    I do not think you have been needing all this medication all these years. I think you could have gotten out the other end of the tunnel if you had held out a fourth year without psychiatry.

    Now, I do not think “profound conditions” are necessarily totally improductive.

  14. Hans — seems our experiences with psychiatry have been polar opposites. Who knows what would have happened if I waited out the psychosis and seen what happened after another year, but as it is the magic pills gave me my life back. Made it like it was before the symptoms hit and let me regroup and go on to a life I am proud of.

    Even if retrospect…..no way would I choose to wait for things to subside. On my mild mood stabilizers with few side-effects, what advantage would their be to the risk?

    At the same time, I completely respect your choice too. Just not sure why you wouldn’t want psychiatry’s treatments to be better so others can have the choice I did. And as I’m sure you know, I could stop taking my meds anytime I want. But far as I am concerned, they have saved my life. And there is no real down side to them.

    But going full circle — feel free to question psychiatry, but not the intention of this charitable gift. It is meant to make lives better, even if you may think that belief misguided.

  15. I was long detained from answering.

    First, I was not – after knowing your story – “questioning the intention.” Of the two scenarios, one was off.

    Second, after that I came across a reason to question it after all. If your father is so rich, he is probably some kind of employer. So, he is probably, considering himself helped by psychiatry, recommending it to employees. Perhaps not always just verbally to them.

    Third, even barring that, your father is a show case, so are you. Any tyranny needs such, otherwise everyone would want to throw it off in disgust. Consider the Abbot and Costello show where a man having payed another man 13 dollars a week for seven weeks ends up with paying him 28 dollars. Then he proves three times, by sleight of hand in maths, how that is supposed to be correct.

    Now when psychiatrists argue against the freedom of a man, or against the ideas they consider pathological, they are about as honest as that bad employer. Same goes for their personnel.

    You have bought yourselves out of the trouble they can do to people with psychoanalysis and captivity by taking the pill. One way of making big pharma and their friends in psychiatry earn money. Others are bying their way out of the trouble pills can do to a body (and how they can betray a soul, a state of mind), by accepting psychoanalysis. Others still are bought and sold into psychiatric captivity. Personnel including shrinks earn money. They have an occasion of feeling like big lords over some (not meaning the cases of depression that are actually either quiet or asking for their help). They do some a service like ridding these others socially of someone, since such captivity often enough equals social death without much hope of resurrection. That is why I do not actually want more people to have your experience of psychiatry.

    As for “waiting for things to subside” that was not what I was suggesting. I was more suggesting things like trying to mend the kind of condistions you were feeling sorry for or seeking answers about the kind of things you might have been confused about. Or fighting back at those, in some way, you are angry at. That is what I do to be proud of my own life.

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