2,000 Human Brains Yield Clues to How Genes Raise Risk for Mental Illnesses

It’s one thing to detect sites in the genome associated with mental disorders; it’s quite another to discover the biological mechanisms by which these changes in DNA work in the human brain to boost risk. In their first concerted effort to tackle the latter, 15 collaborating research teams of the National Institutes of Health- (NIH-) funded PsychENCODE Consortium leveraged statistical power gained from a large sample of about 2000 postmortem human brains.

The teams published their findings in seven research articles, spotlighted on the cover of a “psychiatric genomics” special issue of Science – along with two in Translational Medicine and one in Science Advances – on December 14, 2018. In addition, the Consortium is sharing their data with the research community via the online PsychENCODE Knowledge Portal.

Applying newly uncovered secrets of the brain’s molecular architecture, they developed an artificial intelligence model that’s six times better than previous ones at predicting risk for mental disorders. They also pinpointed several hundred previously unknown risk genes for mental illnesses and linked many known risk variants to specific genes.

Full story at NIMH

Infections during childhood increase the risk of mental disorders

A new study from iPSYCH shows that the infections children contract during their childhood are linked to an increase in the risk of mental disorders during childhood and adolescence. This knowledge expands our understanding of the role of the immune system in the development of mental disorders.

High temperatures, sore throats and infections during childhood can increase the risk of also suffering from a mental disorder as a child or adolescent. This is shown by the first study of its kind to follow all children born in Denmark between 1 January 1995 and 30 June 2012. The researchers have looked at all infections that have been treated from birth and also at the subsequent risk of childhood and adolescent psychiatric disorders.

“Hospital admissions with infections are particularly associated with an increased risk of mental disorders, but so too are less severe infections that are treated with medicine from the patient’s own general practitioner,” says Ole Köhler-Forsberg from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital’s ?Psychoses Research Unit. He is one of the researchers behind the study.

Full story at Science Daily

New Processing Technique Helps Researchers Use Electronic Health Records to Study Biological Contributors to Mental Illnesses

Researchers have found a way to scan electronic health records (EHRs) that helps identify associations between broad dimensions of behavioral function and genes relevant to mental disorders. Use of the technique opens an enormous source of data to researchers who are interested in taking a dimensional approach to the study of mental illnesses instead of using traditional diagnostic categories. The study, funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), was published online February 26, 2018 in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

As medicine has entered the digital age, the use of electronic systems for managing health data has skyrocketed. These electronic health records provide a trove of information for researchers who want to understand factors that contribute to health and illness.

Full story at NIMH

Food insecurity can affect your mental health

Food insecurity (FI) affects nearly 795 million people worldwide. Although a complex phenomenon encompassing food availability, affordability, utilization, and even the social norms that define acceptable ways to acquire food, FI can affect people’s health beyond its impact on nutrition. A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine determined that FI was associated with poorer mental health and specific psychosocial stressors across global regions (149 countries), independent of individuals’ socioeconomic status.

Nearly one in three individuals (29.2%) globally experience a common mental disorder during their lifetime, such as depression, anxiety, and somatic symptom disorders. FI may be a key contributor to common mental disorders through several different mechanisms. First, by generating uncertainty over the ability to maintain food supplies or to acquire sufficient food in the future, FI can provoke a stress response that may contribute to anxiety and depression. Furthermore, acquiring foods in socially unacceptable ways can induce feelings of alienation, powerlessness, shame, and guilt that are associated with depression. FI may also magnify socioeconomic disparities within households and communities that could increase cultural sensitivities and influence overall mental well-being.

Full story of food insecurity and mental health at Science Daily

Light-activated nerve cells: Understanding the causes of anxiety, depression

Anxiety and depression are two of the most frequently occurring mental disorders worldwide. Light-activated nerve cells may indicate how they are formed.

By coupling nerve cell receptors to light-sensitive retinal pigments, Prof Dr Olivia Masseck researches into the causes of anxiety and depression. For more than 60 years, researchers have been hypothesising that the diseases are caused by, among other factors, changes to the level of the neurotransmitter. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to understand how the serotonin system works,” says Masseck, who became junior professor for Super-Resolution Fluorescence Microscopy at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) in April 2016.

Complex serotonin system

The number of receptors for the neurotransmitter in the brain amounts to 14, occurring in different cell types. Consequently, determining the functions that different receptors fulfil in the individual cell types is a complicated task. If, however, the proteins are coupled to light-sensitive pigments, they can be switched on and off with light of a specific colour at high spatial and temporal precision.

Full story of understanding anxiety and depression and Science Daily

Key biological markers for psychotic disorders identified

A team of researchers led by faculty at the University of Georgia has identified a number of biological markers that make it possible to classify mental disorders with greater precision. Their findings, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, may one day lead to improved diagnostics and treatments for those suffering from mental illness.

The advent of modern medical diagnostic tools has made it possible to identify the hallmarks of innumerable diseases with simple, reliable tests that portray the inner workings of the body in exquisite detail–allowing doctors to pinpoint the specific cause of a patient’s complaint and prescribe the proper course of treatment.

The same cannot be said, however, for the field of psychiatry. Despite advances in technology, there are no objective medical tests to diagnose mental disorders. Psychiatrists cannot find evidence of schizophrenia in a blood sample; they can’t see bipolar disorder in an X-ray.

Full story of biological markers for psychotic disorders at Science Daily