By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations
Medical science usually advances slowly and incrementally. What seems logical or reasonable at one point in time may be built upon or overturned by an advance of knowledge in the next decade—or even 20 years later..
Thomas Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has noted that “Diagnosis for mental illnesses is totally by observation and the causes are unknown. Treatment is based off trial and error along with the facts that there is no cure.” He pointed to three insights: mental illnesses are brain disorders, they are developmental disorder and they result from complex genetic risks plus environment factors.
In launching the One Mind for Research campaign, former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy has called for a broad, aggressive research agenda that would not be “disease specific.” Instead, research should reach across traditional disciplines that involve brain disorders— neurodevelopmental conditions like intellectual disability and autism, neurodegenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and neuropsychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia.
Both Insel’s and Kennedy’s views are covered in the current issue of NAMI’s print magazine, theAdvocate. Two news stories broke this week that reflect their approach.
Science Daily reported that scientists from more than 20 countries conducted collaborative studies involving more than 50,000 people to identify genetic variants that put people at risk of developing mental illness.
They discovered that common genetic variants exist for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, involving 11 regions of the genome, including six that were not previously known. The results represent a significant advance in understanding the causes of both illnesses. NIMH funded international coordination of the study.
Meanwhile,Health Daily News reported on a Taiwanese study that found that people living with epilepsy are nearly eight times more likely than those without it to develop schizophrenia. In turn, people living with schizophrenia are also six times more likely to have epilepsy.
The “two-way relationship” between the two conditions may be the result of genetic, neurobiological or environmental causes. While the cause is still uncertain, the study provides new perspective for research.
Every study is a building block of knowledge. Unfortunately, for anyone who lives with mental illness, breakthroughs in scientific research can’t come fast enough.