Mental health breakthroughs paved by genetics

Improved treatments for debilitating mental health conditions is the challenge being embraced by researchers at QIMR Berghofer, aiming to tap into genetic discoveries from the last decade to deliver a new era of precision psychiatry.

Answers lie within our genetic blueprint

Scientists have discovered hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of genes linked to the full range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and ADHD. This has been made possible thanks to new genetic data sets of DNA donated by millions of people, and advancements in supercomputing technology.

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Translational Neurogenomics Laboratory, Professor Eske Derks, said it is now time to progress this research to the next stage.

She has co-led a new study, published in Nature Genetics, identifying 10 key challenges in overcoming clinical translation of these genetic discoveries.

“We’ve had an era of genetic discovery and now we’re on the threshold of a new era of precision psychiatry which could offer more effective drugs for patients, and could help clinicians to better diagnose and treat these complex conditions.

“The challenges we’ve identified are not simple to solve but with a creative, collaborative, and co-ordinated research approach, and investment that supports scientists to do this work, we could make this new era a reality. We owe it to the people who have generously donated their DNA and to those living with a mental illness,” Professor Derks said.

The research team driving this work (L-R): Jackson Thorp, Dr Zachary Gerring and Professor Eske Derks at QIMR Berghofer
The research team driving this work (L-R): Jackson Thorp, Dr Zachary Gerring and Professor Eske Derks at QIMR Berghofer

The opportunity is great, the necessity for progress is even greater

Two in five Australians have experienced mental illness at some point in their life. Anxiety and depression are the most common, with the COVID-19 pandemic triggering a 25 per cent increase in cases according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Mental illnesses can significantly impact patients’ quality of life, and cost the Australian economy around $70 billion every year.

Dr Zachary Gerring, who co-led the study, said there is a tremendous opportunity to use genetic data to find more effective treatments.

“For decades, there has been little progress in developing new drugs for mental health conditions. It can be a long process of trial and error for patients to find a treatment.

“We can integrate the genetic data with drug databases to identify potential new drug candidates that can be repurposed, meaning we could get treatments to patients more quickly and cheaply,” Dr Gerring said. 

QIMR Berghofer PhD candidate and co-lead author, Jackson Thorp, said there is huge potential to use genetic discoveries to work out the biological mechanisms of mental illnesses.

“By better understanding the biological processes, we could find the causes of mental health diseases which could lead to identification of high risk groups of people, more tailored interventions, and more accurate tools for diagnosis

“I’m extremely hopeful that we can use this genetic information to improve the lives of people living with mental illness, underpinned by further funding to do this work,” Mr Thorp said.

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