Mental illness has become increasingly common. The number of people with anxiety and depression, specifically, has steadily increased. The COVID-19 pandemic only made this worse, leading to a roughly 25% increase in the number of anxiety and depression cases.
To complicate matters, many people diagnosed with a mental health disorder are often diagnosed with others at some point in their lives. People with depression, for example, are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders within 6 months of their initial diagnosis.
This growing prevalence of comorbid psychiatric disorders can make treatment challenging and disheartening for patients. But new research examining the genetic causes of several mental health disorders may offer a glimmer of hope.
A new study published in Nature Genetics offers a look at the genetic structure underpinning several different types of mental health disorders. Specifically, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder used publicly available genetic data to examine 11 mental health disorders (including anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, anorexia, and schizophrenia in search of a potential genetic “common denominator,” which they hoped might explain what’s behind this rise in mental health disorder comorbidity.
In their analysis, researchers did not find a single gene or genes that was conclusively connected to all 11 disorders. Instead, they found that certain groups of disorders (e.g., bipolar disorders, anorexia and OCD, etc.) did share some common genetic traits.
The findings suggest that people with certain disorders may be more genetically predisposed to similar disorders in that subset, which could change the way clinicians think about, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders in the future.
In particular, the idea that certain types of mental health conditions have similar underlying genetic causes could change the game when it comes to developing drugs and pharmaceuticals to treat them. Researchers believe their work could lead to the development of drugs designed to target several related conditions at once. This could help patients avoid taking multiple drugs and experiencing several side effects to treat multiple comorbid conditions.