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HMS Researchers Find Genetic Links to Psychiatric Disorders

By C.C. Gong, Crimson Staff Writer

In a finding that that could improve the effectiveness of treatments, Harvard Medical School researchers have found that certain genes are associated with five psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and autism.

“We have found evidence of genetic links between these disorders, which points us in a new direction in understanding the biology behind mental disorders,” said Medical School professor Jordan W. Smoller ’83, the study’s lead author.

Most treatments used today are based on limited knowledge of the biology behind psychiatric disorders, Smoller said.

“Currently it’s classified by symptoms and not causes,” Smoller said. “This study may allow us to approach mental illness in a different way and ultimately classify and diagnose based on underlying cause rather than simply symptom profile.”

Smoller added that this may allow doctors to be more effective in diagnosis and treatment.

The study was conducted by Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry Jordan W. Smoller ’83 and researchers from the Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium.

According to Smoller, the study is the largest of its kind across multiple psychiatric disorders. The research involved scientists from 19 countries collaborating and sharing data.

“It’s an incredibly important study because it validates what we have had an intuition about for a long time,” said Joshua W. Buckholtz, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard. Buckholtz said the study confirmed the idea that there is no one-to-one mapping between genes and genetic variants and discrete psychiatric disorders as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Alisha R. Pollastri, a research fellow in the Smoller Laboratory, cautioned that while the results are important, they only explain a small amount of an individual’s susceptibility to the disorders.

“It is one small step to understanding a bigger picture,” Pollastri wrote in an email.

She added that the study’s finding paves the way for additional exploration of the role of calcium channels in the five psychiatric disorders identified to share the same genetic basis.

According to Pollastri, exploration of calcium channels may contribute to a better understanding of treatment options.

“No single study is going to provide a cure or answer overnight,” Buckholtz said. “What this study does is focus research efforts on aspects of treatment that are broadly applicable to multiple disorders that affect people.”

—Staff writer C.C. Gong can be reached at xigong@college.harvard.edu.

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