We know that psychiatric conditions have a strong genetic component. This means that genes play an important role in determining an individual’s risk or vulnerability to develop a psychiatric condition. However, there is evidence that there are genetic variants that increase the risk for multiple psychiatric disorders. This is called pleiotropy. Researchers of the “Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium” have searched the entire genome of 727,000 individuals (of whom 233,000 were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder) to identify genetic variants with such pleiotropy.
The researchers found one particular gene – called DCC – that increases vulnerability for all eight disorders that were investigated: ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, anorexia nervosa, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and Tourette syndrome.
They also found more than 100 genetic variants that predispose to at least two psychiatric disorders, and around 20 variants that are associated with four or more. This means that the genes that contain these variants can be interesting to further understand why certain individuals are more vulnerable to develop psychiatric illnesses than others.
One of the researchers, professor Bru Cormand, explains more about this research in this blog.
Professor Cormand is involved in the CoCA research consortium where he investigates the genetic overlap between ADHD, major depression, anxiety disorder, substance use disorder and obesity. To read more about this, see for instance this other blog by him and dr. Judit Cabana Dominguez.
Genes play a big role in determining the architecture of our brain: the way it’s folded, the thickness of the outer layer, and the way different brain areas are connected. By combining data from all over the world, a large collaboration of researchers from the ENIGMA consortium has now identified almost 200 genetic variants that are involved in this brain architecture. These findings can help us to further understand the genetics of brain disorders.
Our genes contain the blueprint of our bodies. They contain information about how our cells function, and they determine for instance the colour of our eyes and hair, or whether we like cilantro (coriander) and bitter tastes. For some traits we know very well how they are influenced by genes. Eye color for instance is coded by only a few genes. But for many other traits such as height and personality, many different genes are involved. In addition, other (non-genetic) factors also influence these traits, such as malnutrition that can cause stunted growth.
The architecture of the brain is influenced by a large numer of genes, of which we still know very little. To investigate this, researchers combined genetic data of over 50.000 individuals with MRI-data. MRI-scans can show in detail the thickness of the outer layer of the brain, where all the brain cells are (also called the grey matter). They can also be used to measure how much this layer is folded, which gives information about the total surface of this outerlayer. This brain architecture is unique to every individual. The extent of the folds and the thickness of the outer layer have previously (in other research studies) been linked to cognitive abilities and various neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, depression, autism, and ADHD. It is therefore helpful to understand the genetics of this architecture, because it will help us to better understand the genetic mechanisms of these conditions.
The findings from this research study are also explained in this video:
This important research can only be done by combining a lot of data and collaborating with a large number of scientists and institutes. The ENIGMA consortium has been set upt to facilitate this kind of world-wide collaboration. The research that has now been published is the combined effort of more than 360 scientists from 296 departments across 184 different institutions and universities. They also made their results downloadable so that everyone who is interested can have a closer look.
Driving is dangerous. 1.35 million people die from road accidents every year, according to the World Health Organization . Young people who just obtained their driving license, and especially young men, are at the highest risk for accidents. They are often seeking sensation, are more likely to take risks, and are more prone to take impulsive or thoughtless decisions while driving. To target this specific group, Estonian researchers have developed a training program for driving schools to make people aware of their impulsive tendencies.
Genetic predictors of traffic accidents
Interestingly, this Estonian research group that is led by professor Jaanus Harro specializes in genetics. Next to studying rats, Harro wanted to also investigate impulsive and aggressive behavior in humans. To measure this objectively outside of a laboratory setting they used data on traffic offences and accidents. Harro and his group found that a particular variation in the gene called 5-HTTLPR was associated with the number of speeding offences and traffic accidents . People who have the short version of this variant are less likely to be caught for speeding or be involved in accidents, compared to those with the long variant.
The gene 5-HTTLPR is an important player in the serotonin system in the brain. Serotonin is a messenger molecule with many functions, one of them being the regulation of mood, impulsivity and aggression. Some people are more prone to act without thinking, or without considering the consequences, and this can partly be explained by genetics.
Reducing impulsive driving behavior
So should only people with the short version of 5-HTTLPR be allowed to drive? No, Harro and his team came up with something better: a program to reduce impulsive behavior on the road. They gave this to students who were learning to drive. In the training, students discussed their own impulsive tendencies, and ways to overcome these tendencies. There was also a control group that did not receive this extra lesson. Four years after obtaining their licenses, the group that received the training had been less involved in traffic violations and accidents than the control group. What’s more, those individuals with the long variant of 5-HTTLPR – so the ones who are more likely to be impulsive, based on this gene – benefited from the training the most.
For the driving schools the main implication of this experiment is that it is very beneficial to incorporate awareness training about impulsivity into driving lessons. Already eight driving schools in Estonia are providing the program to their students. The genetic findings however are mainly of interest to the researchers, who are hoping to gain a better understanding of impulsive and aggressive behavior. In addition to the serotonin-gene, they have found that genetic variations in the noradrenaline and dopamine system are also linked to traffic offenses and speeding, and to the effectiveness of the training [3, 4]. And just recently, they found that the neuropeptide orexin is linked to both aggression and to the prevalence of drunk driving and traffic accidents .
In addition to genes, other factors such as age, intelligence, and stressful life events influence the risk of offences and accidents as well, but we still know very little about how this works. That is why Harro and his team are now investigating the interactions between genes and environment. This research is part of the horizon2020 projects CoCA and Eat2beNICE. Ultimately, through a better understanding of our biology they hope to improve the way that people behave on the road, thereby reducing the number of accidents.
Meanwhile, Jaanus Harro travels to ministries and other governmental organizations in Estonia and Finland, to convince them to implement the training program on a national level, and to provide funds for further research. And in case you wonder about Harro’s own driving habits: although he acknowledges that he is quite impulsive, he assures us that he has learned to keep this under control while driving.
 Eensoo, Paaver, Vaht, Loit & Harro (2018). Risky driving and the persistent effect of a randomized intervention focusing on impulsivity: The role of the serotonin transporter promoter polymorphism. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 113, 19-24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29407665
 Paaver, Eenso, Kaasik, Vaht, Mäestu & Harro (2013). Preventing risky driving: A novel and efficient brief intervention focusing on acknowledgement of personal risk factors. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 50, 430-437. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22694918
 Luht, Tokko, Eensoo, Vaht & Harro (2019). Efficacy of intervention at traffic schools reducing impulsive action, and association with candidate gene variants. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 31, 159 – 166. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31182183
Do you sometimes find it difficult to pay attention? Can you be very disorganized at times, or very rigid and inflexible? Although difficulties with attention, organization and rigidity are symptoms of psychiatric disorders, these traits are not unique to people with a diagnosis. And that is very useful for studying the genetics of psychiatric disorders.
Being easily distracted, liking things to go in a certain way, having a certain order in the way you do things, these might all be things you recognize yourself (or someone you know) in, while you (or they) are not diagnosed with any psychiatric disorder. We actually know that many of these symptoms are indeed found in a range in the general population, with some people showing them a lot, some a little and some not at all. If these symptoms are also present in people without a diagnosis then why should we only study people with a diagnosis to learn more about the biology of symptom-based disorders?
Many psychiatric disorders, like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are disorders that ‘run in the family’. Using family-based and genetic studies it was found that they are actually highly heritable. However the underlying genetic risk factors turned out to be difficult to find. Enormous samples sizes (comparing more than 20 000 people with the disorder to even more individuals without the disorder) were needed to robustly find just a few genetic risk factors, although we know that many more genetic factors contribute. Even though these disorders are highly prevalent, collecting genetic data on psychiatric patients for research is still challenging. Using population-based samples – that include all varieties of people from the general population – can be a good alternative to reach large sample sizes for powerful genetic studies.
Taking together the fact that psychiatric-like symptoms are also, to a certain degree, present in the general population, and the fact that genetic studies can benefit from large(r) sample sizes to find genetic associations, it can be very interesting to study psychiatric-like traits in population-based samples. This is indeed what happened in the field of psychiatric genetics. The first proof-of-concept studies were able to show an astonishing overlap in genetic factors of more than 90% between ADHD and ADHD symptoms in the general population. Our own research group was able to show that certain autistic traits, like rigidity, indeed share a genetic overlap with ASD and that genes that were previously linked to ASD show an association to autistic traits in the population. These results show that genetic factors involved in disorder-like traits are overlapping with genetic factors involved in the clinical diagnosis, and therefore can indeed be used to study the biology of psychiatric disorders.
So next time you feel distracted/rigid/disorganized, don’t get discouraged, but consider signing up for a genetic study. Science might need you!
Janita Bralten is a postdoctoral researcher at the department of Human Genetics in the Radboud university medical center, Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her research focusses on the genetics of psychiatric disorders.
Bralten J, van Hulzen KJ, Martens MB, Galesloot TE, Arias Vasquez A, Kiemeney LA, Buitelaar JK, Muntjewerff JW, Franke B, Poelmans G. Autism spectrum disorders and autistic traits share genetics and biology. Mol Psychiatry. 2018 May;23(5):1205-1212.
Middeldorp CM, Hammerschlag AR, Ouwens KG, Groen-Blokhuis MM, Pourcain BS, Greven CU, Pappa I, Tiesler CMT, Ang W, Nolte IM, Vilor-Tejedor N, Bacelis J, Ebejer JL, Zhao H, Davies GE, Ehli EA, Evans DM, Fedko IO, Guxens M, Hottenga JJ, Hudziak JJ, Jugessur A, Kemp JP, Krapohl E, Martin NG, Murcia M, Myhre R, Ormel J, Ring SM, Standl M, Stergiakouli E, Stoltenberg C, Thiering E, Timpson NJ, Trzaskowski M, van der Most PJ, Wang C; EArly Genetics and Lifecourse Epidemiology (EAGLE) Consortium; Psychiatric Genomics Consortium ADHD Working Group, Nyholt DR, Medland SE, Neale B, Jacobsson B, Sunyer J, Hartman CA, Whitehouse AJO, Pennell CE, Heinrich J, Plomin R, Smith GD, Tiemeier H, Posthuma D, Boomsma DI. A Genome-Wide Association Meta-Analysis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Population-Based Pediatric Cohorts. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016 Oct;55(10):896-905.
If you are interested in joining a scientific study see for example:
Cocaine is one of the most used illicit drugs worldwide and its abuse produces serious health problems. In Europe, around 5.2% of adults (from 15 to 64 years old) have tried cocaine, but only 20% will develop addiction. Why? Genetics is part of the answer. Cocaine dependence is a complex psychiatric disorder that results from the interaction of both environmental and genetic risk factors. Twin and adoption studies indicate that genetic alterations contribute substantially to cocaine dependence susceptibility, which has an estimated genetic load (heritability) as high as 65-79%. Although many studies with focus on candidate genes have been performed, only a few risk variants for cocaine dependence have been identified and replicated so far.
In this study we performed a meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of cocaine dependence using more than 6,000 European ancestry individuals. This approach allowed us to inspect a huge number of genetic variants distributed all along the genome that are common in the general population. We identified a gene (HIST1H2BD) associated with cocaine dependence that is located in a region on chromosome 6 enriched in genes that encode histones, proteins that combine with DNA, protecting it and contributing to the activation (or inhibition) of genes. Some of these genes have previously been associated with schizophrenia.
Several studies have shown that substance use disorders (SUD), and especially cocaine dependence, co-occur in patients with other psychiatric disorders and personality traits. Such comorbidity is associated with increased severity for all disorders, although it is unclear whether this relationship is causal or the result of shared genetic and/or environmental risk factors. We calculated the shared genetics (genetic correlation) between cocaine dependence and six comorbid conditions. For the first time we found significant genetic correlation with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, major depression and risk- taking behavior. We also used another approach (polygenic risk score analysis, PRS) to prove that all tested comorbid conditions are associated with cocaine dependence status, suggesting that cocaine dependence is more likely in individuals that carry genetic risk factors for the tested conditions than in those that do not.
To our knowledge, this is the largest reported GWAS meta-analysis in European-ancestry individuals with cocaine dependence. We identified suggestive risk factors for the disorder in several genomic regions and found evidence for shared genetic risk factors between cocaine dependence and several co-occurring psychiatric traits. However, the size of the sample is still limited and further studies are needed to confirm our results.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is considered a complex disorder caused by underlying genetic and environmental risk factors. To make it even more complex, environmental factors can influence the expression of genes. This is called epigenetics.
Given the large proportion of the heritability of ADHD still to be explained, there is a growing interest in the epigenetic mechanisms that modulate gene expression. microRNAs (miRNA) are small parts in the human genome that do not code for genes, but instead regulate the expression of other genes by promoting the degradation or suppressing the translation of those target genes. miRNA therefore provide a means to integrate effects of genetic and environmental risk factors.
The human genome encodes more than 2500 different miRNAs, the majority of which are expressed in the brain. miRNAs are known to be involved in the development of the central nervous system and in many neurological processes including synaptic plasticity and synaptogenesis. Given the limited accessibility of the human brain for studying epigenetic modifications, miRNA profiling in peripheral blood cells is often used as a non-invasive proxy to study transcriptional and epigenetic biosignatures, and to identify potential clinical biomarkers for psychiatric disorders.
We recently investigated the role of microRNAs in ADHD at a molecular level, by conducting the first genome-wide integrative study of microRNA and gene expression profiles in blood of individuals with ADHD and healthy controls. We identified three miRNAs (miR-26b-5p, miR-185-5p and miR-191-5p) that have different expression levels in people with ADHD, compared to those without ADHD. When we investigated downstream miRNA-mediated mechanisms underlying the disorder this provided evidence that aberrant expression profile of these three miRNA may underlie changes in the expression of genes related with myo-inositol signaling. This mediates the biological response of a large number of hormones and neurotransmitters on target cells. We also found that these miRNAs specifically targeted genes involved in neurological disease and psychological disorders.
These findings show that epigenetic modifications through microRNAs play a role in ADHD, and provide novel insights into how these miRNA-mediated mechanisms contribute to the disorder. In the future, these miRNAs may be used as peripheral biomarkers that can be easily detected from blood, as is shown in the figure.
The mechanism through which miRNAs modify gene expression is complex and dynamic. Therefore, future studies are required to provide deeper insights into the epigenetic mechanisms underlying ADHD, and to identify specific molecular networks that may be crucial in the development of the disorder.
Cristina Sánchez-Mora et al. Epigenetic signature for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: identification of miR-26b-5p, miR-185-5p, and miR-191-5p as potential biomarkers in peripheral blood mononuclear cells, Neuropsychopharmacology, volume 44, pages 890–897 (2019).
Cristina Sánchez-Mora is postdoctoral researcher at the Psychiatry, Mental Health and Addictions group at Vall d’Hebron Institut de Recerca (VHIR). Her research is part of the CoCA consortium that investigates comorbid conditions of ADHD
It is not uncommon for individuals to suffer from two or more psychiatric disorders at the same time. The appearance of these disorders frequently follows a specific order, and one disorder may predispose to others, all of which in combination contribute to the worsening of the quality of life of the individuals who suffer them. This is usually associated with more severe symptoms and worse prognosis. In addition, making a diagnosis and applying personalized treatments becomes more challenging in this context. By investigating the genetic overlap between disorders, we gain better understanding of why the disorders frequently co-occur.
In mental health, substance use disorders often appear when there is another mental condition. This is the case for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance use disorder, where individuals with ADHD are more likely to use drugs during their lifetime than individuals who do not have ADHD. In particular, cannabis is the most commonly used substance among individuals with ADHD, which can also lead to the use of other drugs and to the worsening of their symptoms. ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting around 5% of children and 2.5% of adults, and is characterized by attention deficit, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Both ADHD and cannabis use are conditions determined partly by environmental factors but where genetic factors also play an important role.
We recently investigated the genetic overlap between ADHD and cannabis use, and found that the increased probability of using cannabis in individuals with ADHD, can be, in part, due to a common genetic background between the two conditions. We identified four genetic regions involved in increasing the risk of both ADHD and cannabis use, which could point to potential druggable targets and help to develop new treatments. In addition, we confirmed a causal link between ADHD and cannabis use, and estimated that individuals with ADHD are almost 8 times more likely to consume cannabis than those who do not have ADHD. This evidence goes in line with a temporal relationship, where the ADHD appears in childhood and the use of cannabis during adolescent or adulthood. This suggests that having ADHD increases the risk of using cannabis, and not vice versa.
This research has only been possible thanks to large international collaborations by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC), iPSYCH, and the International Cannabis Consortium (ICC), where the genomes of around 85 000 individuals were analysed.
Overall, these results support the idea that psychiatric disorders are not independent, but have a common genetic background, and share biological pathways, which put some individuals at higher risk than others. This will help to overcome the stigma of addiction and mental disorders. In addition, the potential of using genetic information to identify individuals at higher risk will have a strong impact on prevention, early detection and treatment.
María Soler Artigas is postdoctoral researcher at the Psychiatry, Mental Health and Addictions group at Vall d’Hebron Institut de Recerca (VHIR), also part of the Biomedical Research Networking Center in Mental Health (CIBERSAM). Her research is part of the CoCA consortium that investigates comorbid conditions of ADHD.