Using genetic testing to improve mental health, 3

Information presented at NARSAD's 3rd annual Boston Mental Health Research Symposium on May 30 at the Harvard Medical School,and reported in Therapeutics Daily, included data on family traits that provide clues to genes for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder:

Deborah L. Levy, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Psychology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital, is studying families to detect relatives who are carriers of the genes for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, even though these individuals don't have the diseases themselves.

"One of the key issues in any genetic study is to distinguish individuals who are gene carriers from individuals who are not gene carriers," explains Dr. Levy. In single gene disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease, 25 percent and 50 percent of family members, respectively, have the same illness. In contrast, only 6.5 percent of family members of people with schizophrenia actually have the illness, which means most relatives don't have symptoms of the illness but may still be gene carriers.

To find the relatives who are likely carriers of genes for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Dr. Levy and her colleagues have zeroed in on four discernable schizophrenia-related traits that occur in well family members at a much higher rate than schizophrenia itself: difficulty following a slow moving target with one's eyes, syntax errors or idiosyncratic use of language, subtle anomalies involving the midline of the face, and difficulty filtering out noises and other irrelevant stimuli (a condition known as sensory gating).

These traits, according to Dr. Levy, are much more common in families with schizophrenia. For example, idiosyncratic use of language (a trait similar to the thought disorder observed in schizophrenia) occurs in 37 percent of clinically unaffected first-degree relatives of individuals with schizophrenia, a rate that is almost six times higher than schizophrenia in the same families. When the rates for thought disorder and schizophrenia and related clinical conditions are combined, the proportion of potential gene-carrying relatives is close to 50 percent, consistent with a dominant gene, and much higher than the 6.5 percent rate of schizophrenia in the same families.

These studies may help us determine how to help people based on their genetic traits.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

| mgodfrey39's blog