Communication between brain cells contributes to shared symptoms across mental disorders

Genes related to specific biological mechanisms in the brain are involved in the development of multiple mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, autism spectrum disorder and ADHD.

07/24/2019 | 9:48 AM

The most important role is for genes active at the connection points between brain cells through which the cells communicate with each other. In addition, especially genes that are active in the brain are important, while genes active in other tissues do not play a role. These findings are the results of research performed by Anke Hammerschlag, Christiaan de Leeuw and Tinca Polderman from the VU, and psychiatrist Christel Middeldorp of the University of Queensland (Australia). The research is an important first step towards the development of new drugs which may be effective for a wide range of patients, regardless the exact diagnosis. The study is published online this week in Psychological Medicine.

Mental disorders are related to each other and multiple symptoms often overlap. Individuals with ADHD, for example, also more often suffer from major depression than individuals without ADHD, and family members from someone with schizophrenia have an increased risk for other mental disorders. Biological psychologist Tinca Polderman: “Since several years we know that this relatedness between mental disorders is partly caused by genetic factors that are associated with all of these disorders. However, little is known about the underlying biological pathways that are involved.”

Diagnostic methods not optimal
Current diagnostic methods for mental disorders are not always optimal because symptoms highly overlap. Also, drugs are not effective for all patients. For the development of more effective therapeutic approaches, we need more knowledge about the underlying biology. Neuroscientist Anke Hammerschlag: “Our research now shows that the overlap seen across mental disorders can be explained by specific biological pathways, especially those important for the communication between brain cells. This knowledge can inform follow-up research of the effects of the identified sets of genes on the functioning of the brain in more detail, and their relationship with mental disorders.

Future: Personalized medicine
In the future, we may be able to adjust our diagnostic domains by integrating genetic profiles that match specific biological pathways. This makes the current genetic research of high value. The identified sets of genes can be used to increase our knowledge about the etiology of mental disorders. Anke Hammerschlag: “Our research will possibly bring us one step closer to the development of more effective personalized medicine. This is important for the patients, their family and practitioners.”

To perform the research, genetic data of more than 400,000 individuals has been analysed. This data is provided by a consortium that includes hundreds of researchers that contribute data and collaborate, in order to increase our knowledge about the development of mental disorders.