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The National Institute of Mental Health archives materials that are over 4 years old and no longer being updated. The content on this page is provided for historical reference purposes only and may not reflect current knowledge or information.

Five Mental Disorders Share Some of the Same Genes

Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D., director of NIMH’s Division of Adult Translational Research, explains the significance of recent study findings for diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses.


Dr. Bruce Cuthbert: This study examined five different psychiatric disorders that we’ve always thought of as distinct disorders. Autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and unipolar depression. It examined the genetics in all of these disorders in one BIG sample, as though they were simply a single illness. And they found genes that were in common across all of these disorders . In particular, they found disruptions in calcium channels that are very important parts of neurotransmission. Now that doesn’t match with the idea that these are distinct. Rather it shows us that there are these common mechanisms. Now, these may not be involved with absolutely everybody who has these disorders, but clearly they are present in all of these different groups.

What that suggests is that we can start to move beyond the way we currently think about disorders. Now we diagnose our disorders purely by description, we describe the symptoms, and assign a diagnosis on that basis. Now we can start to actually think about diagnosing the disorder by its underlying biology. That one person has this calcium channel problem. Another person has something else wrong.

The importance of this is that now we can see our way to looking at better ways to treat mental disorders. Because rather than looking at a treatment that’s specific to schizophrenia, or to autism spectrum, we now can look for a problem that may be common across many people, like fixing these calcium channel problems, and that would be a therapy that would help a great many people, depending on their disease biology and not the particular symptoms that they have.