Good Genes for Mental Health

Recent research connects mental health to our DNA.

Posted Nov 28, 2019

Wikimedia Commons
"Genes are like the story and DNA is the language that the story is written in." -Sam Kean
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When we think of “good genes,” we tend to focus on beauty. But genetics are increasingly important in the study of mental health, including the origin of disorders like schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is widely misunderstood; it derives from a combination of biological factors, as well as one’s immediate environment. Malnutrition, exposure to certain illnesses and things like childhood abuse all contribute to this chronic disease.

Schizophrenia is marked by both delusions and hallucinations. A hallucination means seeing things that aren’t there—like a ghost or spirit, usually in the form of a close relative who has passed. Hearing voices is part of having hallucinations, too. Delusions are essentially a fixed set of false beliefs, despite a plethora of evidence to the contrary.

In obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), delusions—not hallucinations—are connected to behaviors like excessive hand-washing or what may be viewed as superstitions, such as avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. Part of the difficulty with diagnosing schizophrenia (or any mental health concern) is the high comorbidity rate with other clinical disorders.

The schizophrenic spectrum includes depression, mania, impaired social function, and neglect of personal hygiene. Schizoaffective disorder is part of the schizophrenic spectrum and often involves aspects of bipolar disorder, like mood swings. With schizoaffective disorder, symptoms may last anywhere from two weeks to a year or longer.

Any illness within the schizophrenic spectrum affects how a person thinks. If a family member or friend suddenly begins seeing you as a threat or feels as though others are out to get them, it may be a sign that elements of the schizophrenic spectrum are at play. The sad part is that you can't force people to get help. Unlike a physical wound that bleeds, perforations in our psychology can be more easily masked as eccentricities.

But new research published in Nature Communications (2019) led by a team at Cardiff University shows that behavioral inflexibility is connected to our genes, specifically something called cytoplasmic FMRP interacting protein 1 (CYFIP1).[i] The deletion of the gene within chromosome 15 can increase a person’s risk up to four-fold for psychiatric issues like schizophrenia.

How It Works

Chromosome 15 (known as 15q11.2) is one of 23 pairs of chromosomes. Humans have duplicate copies of chromosomes—one from each parent. Think of it as a back-up system. Like using an external hard-drive with a computer.

Chromosome 15 has over 100-million base pairs. What does that mean? A base pair is made up of two nucleobases (nitrogen-based compounds that contribute to the formation of nucleotides, or the building blocks of DNA). Nucleobases are held together by hydrogen bonds, an elemental bond via electrostatic force that includes hydrogen. With all those millions of base pairs, you might be surprised to learn that Chromosome 15 only contributes to about 3% of the DNA in your cells, yet one small change can make a world of difference when it comes to human programming.

People throw around the term “DNA” like it’s a frisbee. DNA is actually an acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid—it’s essentially the double-helix, or the two chains that coil around each other and carry genetic instructions for the growth and development of all organisms, including certain viruses. 

The researchers at Cardiff showed that when one copy of CYFIP1 was missing, it created abnormalities in the insulating sheath that forms around nerves in the brain called myelin. Oligodendrocytes, or glial cells in the central nervous system that do not produce electrical impulses, are important to brain function because they help maintain balance in the body by protecting neurons through the production of myelin.

Neurons are nerve cells in the brain that communicate with each other through synapses—the conductors of messages from cell to cell. Without myelin to protect the nerves, cellular damage can happen, causing miscommunications within the brain itself. That’s schizophrenia, just at the cellular level: A misfiring in the brain that causes a lack of flexibility in one’s thinking. Having fixed ideas that are not based in reality contributes to avoidant behavior, translating to anything from the discard of family members to suicidal thoughts. Being overwhelmed by social obligations or devaluing necessary social connections is part of the inflexibility that presents when there’s an interruption in myelin production in the brain.

The Bottom Line

Part of raising awareness about mental health means helping others to understand how our psychology is influenced by our biology, which is entirely dependent on our genetics. We tend to perceive these scientific disciplines as separate from one another. But through emerging research on the gut-brain axis, it’s clear that we are what we eat in more ways than one. It’s no surprise then that malnutrition is one of the contributing factors in schizophrenia. As research continues to uncover the connections between our genes and our biochemical functions, there is greater hope of finding a cure for chronic diseases like schizophrenia.

As we approach the end of 2019, it’s important to be mindful of the context behind our mental health. Part of the stigma of psychiatric disease is that it’s somehow an individual’s fault when, in fact, there are often biological factors stemming from our genes that contribute to the development of mental health disorders—a good thing to keep in mind as we come together with family this holiday season.

Choosing compassion over judgment and kindness over cruelty is the best gift we can give to ourselves and others. The real key to surviving anything is having the wherewithal to use patience in negative social situations, sometimes caused by mental health disorders in otherwise high-functioning individuals.

Compassion and kindness both derive from increased mindfulness. Mindfulness means being self-aware. Meditation can help there. If you have difficulty concentrating, try incorporating simple mind-games that will help improve your focus, like simplifying numbers on license plates (1+1=2, etc.)—that’s something that requires no extra effort, time or money. You just have to either walk or drive outside on a regular basis, and you can begin to improve your brain function by keeping it active. This also increases mindfulness because you automatically become more aware of your surroundings—a healthy addition as we all begin a new chapter in the new year.

References

Ana L. Silva, Josephine E. Haddon, Yasir Ahmed Syed, Simon Trent, Tzu-Ching E. Lin, Yateen Patel, Jenny Carter, Niels Haan, Robert C. Honey, Trevor Gumby, Yaniv Assaf, Michael J. Owen, David E. J. Linden, Jeremy Hall, Lawrence S. Wilinson. "Cy-fip 1 haploinsufficient rats show white matter changes, myelin thinning, abnormal oligodendrocytes and behavioural inflexibility." Nature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-11119-7