Despite mountains of books published about mental illness, there is really very little that we know for sure about mental illness. Research tends to focus on how to manage symptoms rather than look for the mysterious causes of mental illness. A new study by UC San Francisco (UCSF) scientists suggests that genes causing birth defects in the brain may a major cause of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism.
The study was done on mice. This is the one thing I don’t like. The mice are bred to have defects and then killed and dissected to look for that defect. There are alternatives to using expensive and space-consuming laboratory animals. Then, there is also the argument that if you lived in a lab, you’d develop mental illness, too. But anyway …
The specific gene under investigation is called Dact1. If the gene “goes awry” while the mouse is an embryo, the resulting mouse baby is born with major physical defects. The study (if I’m reading this right) genetically manipulated the Dact1 gene in adult mice. Here’s what the article at UCSF says:
“In doing so, Cheyette, John Rubenstein, MD, PhD, and colleagues in UCSF’s Nina Ireland Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology used a genetic technique in adult mice to selectively delete the Dact1 protein only in interneurons, a group of brain cells that regulates activity in the cerebral cortex, including cognitive and sensory processes. Poor function of interneurons has been implicated in a range of psychiatric conditions.”
There are many theories as to why some people get mental illnesses and some do not (even if they have the same parents.) It could be that there are a wide variety of factors that have to come together is a “perfect storm” to trigger mental illness in an individual. Certainly, some mental illnesses like dissociative personality disorder (which used to be called multiple personality disorder) are triggered by severe abuse during childhood.
But this is a promising study to help shine a light on at least one cause of some mental illnesses.