Autism Shares Genetic Features With Psychiatric Disorders

Autism and four other psychiatric disorders have similar genetic features, scientists discovered for the first time, opening up a potential new approach to drug treatment for these diseases.

Variations in two genes involved in the balance of calcium in brain cells is common to a range of mental disorders including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, according to the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, a group of scientists from around the world. The study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the governments of other countries, was published today in The Lancet medical journal.

The scientists scanned the genomes of more than 60,000 people, comparing the results of 33,332 patients with those of people who didn’t have a mental disorder in the largest genetic analysis of psychiatric illness. The findings may help to reclassify these conditions on the basis of causes rather than collections of descriptive symptoms and may shape new ways of treating the diseases, the researchers said.

“Our results provide insights into the shared causation of psychiatric disorders,” the scientists said in the published paper. “Alterations in calcium-channel signaling could represent a fundamental mechanism contributing to a broad vulnerability” to treatment.

Calcium levels in the brain play a crucial role in regulating the growth and development of nerve cells, Alessandro Serretti and Chiara Fabbri of the University of Bologna’s department of biomedical and neuromotor sciences said in a comment accompanying the study’s publication.

Similar genome-wide studies of autoimmune disorders have also shown overlap in genetic variants that affect a range of diseases, the researchers said.

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