Creativity and Psychiatric Illnesses

Creativity, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder may share genes.

Posted Nov 10, 2015

Is there a connection between creativity and psychopathology? Some studies support a relationship between two psychiatric illnesses—bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—and creativity. Earlier studies examined psychopathology in creative individuals as well as creativity occurring in patients with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and their family members. A study published in Nature Neuroscience by a team of researchers led by Drs. Robert Power and Kari Stephansson takes advantage of a different approach to examining the relationship between creativity and these two disorders.

Over the last several years, techniques have been developed that allow for the identification of a large number of genes that contribute to the risk of a person developing bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The larger the number of these "risk" genes that a person inherits, the greater the chance that person will develop one of these illnesses. Environmental factors also contribute substantially to the risk for these two illnesses.

Even when people inherit multiple risk genes, the majority will not develop either illness. The investigators involved in this study examined whether those who inherit these genes without developing the illnesses are an enriched group in terms of creativity.

Creativity is hard to define. For the purpose of this study, a creative individual was defined as being a member of an artistic society of actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists, or writers.

These investigators found that the higher the genetic loading for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the larger the association with the above proxies for creativity.

This work supports the hypothesis that certain genes associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are also associated with creativity. Since these genes persist in the population despite the deleterious consequences of developing either of these two psychiatric disorders, it is possible that the evolutionary benefit in enhancing creativity outweighs the risks for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

There are likely to be many other traits that are associated with this group of genes. The approaches used in this study should help in elucidating the complex relationships between a variety of behaviors and the genetic underpinnings of specific psychiatric disorders.

This column was written by Eugene H Rubin MD, Ph.D. and Charles Zorumski MD

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