Columns / Discourse / April 26, 2017

One Mind: Looking at genetics and environment

Like any aspect of medicine or biology, mental health is quite a complex subject and there isn’t really any one thing that can improve or worsen it. In most cases, genetics is a key factor. A lot of mental conditions, or even just mental health issues in general, tend to be rather common in some families. Obviously, genetics is a complex subject, and family history can only explain so much of it. For instance, Down Syndrome, one of the most common mental health conditions, is caused by an abnormality in the number of chromosomes a person has. Schizophrenia has been traced to one very specific gene. Autism, on the other hand, is largely genetic, but has been linked to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of genes, and there isn’t one or even a specific set of these genes that seem to cause it.

Confused yet? Believe me, it gets weirder. Many of these autism genes have been traced to pre-evolution, meaning that humans have had them before they were human. The number of ‘autistic’ genes has since increased. This, combined with a possible occurrence of a few of these genes in child prodigies, has led some to believe that autism was a positive mutation for humanity at some point and played a small role in species survival. Also, even though autism is highly genetic and can run in families family members almost never have the same autistic symptoms, nor do they fall on the same place on the spectrum.

Schizophrenia is just as complex and surprising. For instance, that one gene that has been linked to Schizophrenia has been named “DIS” (Disrupted in Schizophrenia). The reason for this is because scientists still have no idea what the gene is supposed to do. They only know that its malfunction results in Schizophrenia. Another weird statistic is that Schizophrenia seems to be slightly more common in gay men than most other groups, and the scientific community still has no idea why.

Perhaps strangest of all is that despite all of this genetic complexity, the mentally ill and those with physical disabilities are still a minority population-wise. The mentally ill make up only about one-fifth of the American populace. Most people are able-bodied and neurotypical despite literally thousands of interconnected parts designed to fit together in one specific way. One of my personal favorite biology facts is that evolution functions on genetic diversity. Literally every creature that exists today does so because somebody was born different from everyone else, and, miracle of miracles, that individual had an easier go at life than all the others, and so that became the new normal. Take us, for example. We have opposable thumbs, are mostly hairless, walk on two feet, stand up straight, live in communities, etc., and the basic reason for all of it? Well… it worked for that first guy.

Tony Rogde-Hinderliter

Tags:  column discourse genetics mental health mental illness one mind

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