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Psychiatric Genetics 'Exploding'

It was around 130 years ago that Sigmund Freud started using early psychoanalysis techniques to treat Viennese women for their unshakeable blues, and in the following century the scientific and cultural perceptions about mental illness would change forever.

A similar revolution could be happening today, Psychiatry Online's Joan Arehart-Treichel writes, but this one is being launched not by sleuths uncovering layers of the subconscious life, but by investigators sorting through the human genome.

Genetics is going to be the next big thing in treating mental illnesses, she writes, saying that the field of psychiatric genetics has "exploded" over the past five years as genome-wide studies have turned up more and more interesting variants.

While it may not happen tomorrow, maybe in a decade or so people with psychiatric disorders likely will be treated with drugs that target their specific illnesses based on specific genetic mutations, she reports.

Before 2008 only a handful of gene variants involved in psychiatric illnesses had been identified, but now nearly 200 have been dredged up from the depths of the human genome, including common and rare variations and copy number variations, Harvard Medical School's Jordan Smoller says. Many of these variants appear to play roles in schizophrenia and autism.

"We can now point to over 100 gene variants that have been consistently associated with schizophrenia," National Institute of Mental Health's Francis McMahon notes. McMahon says GWAS studies have been "transformative" for understanding psychiatric illnesses.

Of course, there may be as many as 8,000 gene variations or CNVs involved in schizophrenia, Smoller says, so there is plenty of work left to do.

While it is intriguing to scientists to discover that genes are involved in mental disorders, patients probably want to know how that knowledge is going to help them. That may take a little while.

"Although we know the basic biology of some of the genes involved in psychiatric disorders, we still don't know how specific mutations in these genes are actually causing illness," adds psychiatric geneticist Stephen Glatt of the State University of New York-Upstate Medical University. "I am hoping that within 10 years we will begin to have early testing of some drugs that are targeted at some of these genes and might ultimately be helpful for humans."